An attempt by residents to check the spread of student rooming houses into their historic area failed to receive Evanston City Council backing in a close vote on Sept. 29.

By a 5-4 vote, aldermen rejected a request of property owners in the 1900 block of Orrington Avenue to rezone that block from R-4, which allows a variety of residential uses, to R-1, which limits uses to single family. The Evanston Plan Commission, an advisory body, had previously recommended 5-2 against the change.

Voting against the change were Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Donald Wilson, 4th Ward; Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.

Voting in support of changing the zoning to single family were Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward; and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

The 1900 block of Orrington is located in the federally and locally designated Northeast Historic District. Residents of that block and some in other surrounding blocks had maintained the rezoning was needed to discourage developers from moving into their area and buying up houses and converting them to student rooming houses.

During citizen comment at the start of the Council meeting, John Blades, one of the speakers, urged aldermen to support the change to prevent the street from becoming yet “another casualty of predatory blockbusters.”

Without the rezoning, he predicted, “many of Orrington’s family homes and two-flats will be transformed into student tenements, fraternity and sorority party annexes, playgrounds for beer pong,  junkyards for Solo cups and Bud cans,” he said.

“It’s bound to happen. If you’re skeptical, if you think I’m exaggerating,” he told aldermen, “look at what’s happening, or what’s already happened in the Fireman’s Park neighborhood (Maple Avenue and Simpson Street), where I live, or on Sherman and Simpson and Gaffield and Hamlin and Garnett — all formerly family neighborhoods.”

During Council discussion, elaborating further, Ald. Fiske said residents sought the change after seeing developers snapping up properties in areas around them but not buying up properties in R-1 (Single Family) zones.

“I think that what’s important is to keep this as simple as possible, and that this is not this is not about students per se,” she stressed. “It’s about absentee landlords, and the problems that lack of supervision plays in the neighborhood, and on o the residential neighbors, and how that puts them in the position of, pretty much, having to monitor these houses for violations and behavior, because there’s no one else in the houses to do that.“

She said the activity can be “exhausting,” and maintained that the rezoning would give residents a tool to relieve some of that stress.

Further, she noted, “just right across the street, north on Orrington, everything down Orrington, is all zoned R-1.

But Ald. Rue Simmons, whose Fifth Ward lies directly west and includes a number of former single-family homes converted to student rooming houses, argued that the zoning change “request doesn’t enforce the bad habits and property standard issues of others of the area.”

Ald. Simmons also noted the time the City has spent on the need for racial equity.

“I get that this particular block would not have an immediate opportunity for affordable housing, given that two-bedroom basement apartments are going for $2,100 a month in rent “ she said.

But she pointed to a recent exhibit the City had sponsored on redlining and other discriminatory practices and her own referral to examine zoning in that light.

 “So it’s difficult to support any R-1 zoning from what we’re learning about how that has impacted and segregated our City,” she said, “and disinvested certain neighborhoods, and how that’s impacted our families, and informed our racial disparities.”

Ald. Suffredin asked about Northwestern University’s responsibility on the issue, curbing some of the student behaviors disrupting neighbors.

 “This is a pretty big policy tool,” he said of the requested zoning change, “that cities have in terms of zoning, and I think as a City we want to move away from R-1.”

“And I have heard what the neighbors said and I understand it,” he said, “but why do we tolerate Northwestern’s hands-off attitude about the behavior of their students in our community?”

Ald. Fiske, the ward’s alderman since 2009, said there have been efforts to involve Northwestern. Overall, though, she said during the discussion, “You know Northwestern is not going to come enforce — they don’t do that, they’re not helpful in this.”

Activities such as beer pong parties “do not occur in current R-1 zones — we don’t see that anywhere going down Orrington Avenue, except in this block and in the R-5 zone that’s on Sherman Avenue,” she said.

Returning to what she called the “real issue,” she said, “This is a vote tonight [about] absentee landlords and investors.”

“It is not [about] appropriate and affordable housing. It [the spread of unsupervised rooming houses] is anti-affordable housing, because it is putting in play houses that are family homes and putting them in the hands off of absentee landlords and investors,” she said.

“This is just the wrong thing to do. It’s against everything that I know that all of us stand for.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.