The April 30 City Council meeting was supposed to be focused on the Council’s stated desire to keep the affordable housing issue “on the front burner.” Other issues fought their way onto the agenda, but they could not crowd out the affordable housing initiatives entirely. Proposals to expand the use of accessory dwelling units (coach houses), to allow smaller lot zoning, and to address the rule that allows only three-unrelated people to reside in a dwelling unit all moved forward in one way or another.

Accessory Dwelling Units

As it turns out, much of the heavy lifting on coach houses has already been done. The staff memo included an “Accessory Dwelling Units, Model Act and Local Ordinance” prepared by the American Planning Association at the request of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The model law “provides useful information on different types of ADUs (attached and detached units), impact of ADUs in different zoning districts, considerations for permitting, etc.” according to the staff memo.

The 54-page Public Policy Institute document, published and distributed by the AARP in 2000, was attached to the Council packet. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she thought the measure should be sent directly to the City’s Planning and Development Committee for debate and possible adoption.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward agreed, calling the report “great research” and saying Council’s affordable housing strategies were “not reinventing the wheel.” He said the draft ordinance prepared by staff and based on the model ordinance should include provisions for the registration of rental units, as well as the issuance of a certificate of occupancy after City inspections have been completed. He agreed with Ald. Fiske that the ordinance should go directly to the Planning and Development Committee rather than to the citizen-led Plan Commission.

“I echo Alderman Fiske,” said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. Changes to accessory dwelling unit ordinances were policy decisions appropriate for City Council deliberation first, “before the Plan Commission gets into the zoning nitty-gritty,” she said.

Prior Evanston ordinances regarding coach houses allowed their rental to family members or domestic help only. In a Citywide “nudge, nudge, wink, wink,” Council and staff have long acknowledged that this restriction was largely ignored either intentionally or out of ignorance (many homeowners remain unaware such a restriction ever existed). Council recently referred a measure eliminating rental restrictions to the Planning and Development Committee.

With the latest referral, the committee plans to undertake a more comprehensive overhaul of laws concerning dwelling units within a larger single-family home, including coach houses and in-law suites, among others. The expectation is that such units will be offered at a rental rate more affordable to those making less than the Area Median Income, though Council recently rejected a push to establish rental rates on such units through rent control.

A revised ordinance is expected on the May 14 Planning and Development Committee agenda.

Small and Irregular Lot Special Uses for Starter Homes

Current ordinances require setbacks and other requirements mandating certain lot sizes and square footage for homes constructed in the City. When lots are carved up and homes built, however, the result can be “some odd shapes and sizes of parcels,” said Housing and Grants Administrator Sarah Flax.

As a result, City staff recommended “consideration of developing a Special Use process that would enable developers to propose the construction of modest-size homes on smaller lots than currently allowed by our zoning,” according to the staff memo.

The goal is an increase in smaller, “starter” houses “affordable to first-time homebuyers and less affluent residents by reducing the land cost associated with the development of a single-family home,” continued the memo.

Such special uses would permit the “creative use of physical lots” but also the design and construction of “creative structures,” said Ald. Wilson. “Generally, the trend is taking down small houses and putting up big houses,” he said, but allowing smaller homes on odd-shaped lots should result in the increase in new smaller homes.

Ald. Wilson suggested the same fate as for the accessory-dwelling-unit ordinance – direct referral to the Planning and Development Committee for consideration.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said she already had a particular lot in mind. She recommended consideration of 2122 Darrow Ave., a double lot, “as an example for small-lot housing.” She said City staff should work with a developer to put a number of smaller homes at the site.

The challenge will be limiting the special use to affordable units. Adding a special use permitting construction on non-conforming lots could result as much in “creative” larger, luxury homes on attractive lots as smaller homes geared toward less affluent buyers.

Three Unrelated

Ald. Wilson has long stated his desire to repeal the current Evanston ordinance that prohibits the occupancy of a dwelling unit by more than three unrelated persons.  Ald. Fiske has long resisted any effort to change the law, saying residents in the First Ward wanted to keep it in order to control the rental of homes and units to large groups of rowdy Northwestern students.

Both stuck to their positions on April 30. Ald. Wilson referred the repeal of the ordinance to the Planning and Development committee. Ald. Fiske said changes in Northwestern housing policy requiring sophomore students to stay on campus should be considered first, and the impact of NU’s policy change would not be known for at least a year. Therefore, she said, the discussion should be put off until at least 2019.

In the end, Ald. Wilson compromised. While he initially asked for an ordinance that would repeal the three unrelated persons rule, he ultimately put forth a referral to the Planning and Development Committee to discuss the issue on May 14. “I really want to move this forward,” he said, but allowed the interim step of discussion only rather than a direct ordinance amendment.

Residents can expect a robust discussion on May 14, with Ald. Fiske defending the three unrelated person law and Ald. Wilson pushing for its repeal. Generally, Council has seemed open to a change in the law, either an outright repeal or an increase in the number of unrelated persons permitted.