The Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, made it clear to all that the debate over any changes to the ordinance prohibiting more than three unrelated persons from living in the same rental unit would not be changed any time soon. “I am not willing to entertain” a motion referring the matter to staff, she said, and refused to schedule further discussion of the issue.

Ald. Fiske’s statements came at the May 14 meeting of the Planning and Development Committee. The item was on the agenda as a discussion item, and at the outset she set the parameters, allotting only 15 minutes to the discussion.

Almost like bulbs emerging from the warming earth every spring, the Three Unrelated Persons Law enters the public debate. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, who has long championed changes to or repeal of the ordinance, said even the United State Supreme Court has been grappling with the issue for decades.

Ald. Wilson quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall, who wrote in a 1974 dissent, in a dissent from 1974, who wrote, “It is inconceivable to me that we would allow the exercise of zoning power… to burden First Amendment freedoms, as by ordinances that restrict occupancy to individuals adhering to particular religious, political, or scientific beliefs. Zoning officials properly concern themselves with the uses of land – with, for example, the number and kind of dwellings. But zoning authorities cannot validly consider who those persons are. ….”

A number of residents living in and around the Sherman Avenue corridor north of Emerson Street spoke about what they called the Northwestern “student ghetto,” and problems caused by groups of students renting single family homes near campus. Some called the three-unrelated law the only tool they had to address student housing problems.

The tool appeared to be one that was not working, as the litany of problems described – garbage, noise, drinking, overcrowding, and others, are not adequately addressed. Investors are buying houses and renting by the room right now, several said.

Ald. Wilson said “the discussion now,” as it was centered on Northwestern students, was about “who these people are – and I am very uncomfortable with that…. We don’t look at who the people are and how they choose to live,” he said.  

The City created a tool in the nuisance premises ordinance, passed in 2016, designed to address the property standards issues raised by the residents. Given the accounts brought to the committee, it is clear the nuisance premises ordinance is either not being used or is somehow flawed, said Ald. Wilson. Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, and Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, agreed.

“I’m wondering why the nuisance premises ordinance hasn’t been applied or attempted” as a solution to the problems referenced by the Sherman residents, said Ald. Rainey.

Ald. Fiske said the problems often “did not rise to the level” necessary to trigger the nuisance premises ordinance. Residents may call the police reporting drug use, she said, but by the time the police arrive “the drugs were gone,” she said. “Neighbors are searching for an answer,” she said, adding that declaring an area a historic district has helped other neighborhoods in the past.

“I’m very concerned… about the conditions students have been living in,” said Ald. Simmons. She said she wanted to learn more about rooming houses as a zoning designation, and perhaps suggest changes permitting rooming houses that were not owner occupied.

“I agree with “ Ald. Simmons, said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. “I’d also like more information on rooming houses” to “find out what would make it possible to have more of these.” She also said the changes to residency requirements at Northwestern – in the fall, all sophomores will be required to live on campus – should be considered. She called the requirement “the biggest change in our rental market since World War II,” and said Council should not make any changes to the three-unrelated-persons ordinance until the Northwestern’s changes have been in place and their impact known.

“I know what’s going to happen,” said Ald. Rainey: more Air B&Bs and related short-term rentals.  She referred to possible licensing of landlords or other changes. “We’ve had this rule [three-unrelated] for so long and people are still complaining – it hasn’t solved the problem.”

Ald. Rue Simmons asked how many students live off campus, and Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie said a total of about 22,000 students live off campus but most are in Chicago. About 7,200 live off campus in Evanston, she said.  

It is also clear the three-unrelated-persons ordinance does not solve the problem, said Ald. Wilson. “It is my strong preference that we repeal the ordinance,” he said. “I just honestly think that this ordinance, the way it works in this City, it’s discriminatory.” It attacks a class of people “for an improper purpose…. But I think some see this as their only resort,” the only tool they have to address nuisance properties. He called for a comprehensive solution – eliminating the three-unrelated-persons ordinance but replacing it with other tools residents can use to address problems with student-filled homes.

It is not going to happen any time soon. When he made a motion for staff to draft an ordinance repealing the three unrelated-persons ordinance and replace it with an improved nuisance premises ordinance, the committee chair took over.

“I’m not willing to entertain that motion right now,” said Ald. Fiske. “This is not an easy fix. Unless we do that thoughtfully” the City will create more problems than it solves, she said. The committee had discussed the issue for “31 minutes,” she said, more than double the 15 minutes she allotted, and she therefore cut off debate.

When Ald. Wilson tried to place the matter on a future agenda for continued discussion, Ald. Fiske refused to do so. “I’m not going to do that right now,” she said.

“So you’re ending the discussion,” said Ald. Wilson. The answer was obvious to everyone in the room.