At its meeting scheduled for Wednesday, July 14, the City’s Plan Commission is scheduled to consider a recommendation to delete the definition of “family” in the Zoning Code and instead rely on the occupancy limits that are already in the City’s code to address concerns about overcrowding.

City staff have recommended 10 steps to regulate the occupancy limits.

A staff memo presented to the Plan Commission says, “Staff believes that these changes will begin to address systemic inequities that have disparate impact on lower income households and will assist in ending the practice of not listing all residents on leases to avoid conflict with the current occupancy maximum of three unrelated people. When all tenants are listed on the lease in compliance with Evanston landlord and tenant regulations, all tenants are provided the protections of the regulations.

“These changes will also facilitate better relationships between City staff, landlords, and student households.” Whether strict enforcement of the occupancy limits will restrict housing opportunities for low-income households in Evanston is not analyzed.

The Definition of Family

The definition of “family” in the Zoning Code, Section 6-18-3, includes: a) “One or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption living together as a single housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit”; b) “Two unrelated persons and their children living together as a single housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit”; c) “A group of not more than three unrelated persons living together as a single housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit.” (The definition also includes a section that was intended to allow housing for Reba Fellowship.)

In the Zoning Code as it now stands, the definition of family is important because Section 6-4-1-14 provides, with some exceptions, that “no dwelling unit shall be occupied by more than one … family.”

In a June 4 memo, City staff said, “The definition of family has been the subject of debate for many years. It is problematic for a multitude of reasons. It is lengthy and confusing and does not take into account the many different types of families/households that exist today.”

Occupancy Limits

The City’s Property Maintenance Code requires at least 70 square feet in a bedroom for one person or 100 square feet in a bedroom for two people (or 50 square feet per person), as well as consideration of common space: 120 square feet for a living room, and 80 square feet for dining or a combined living/dining room space of 200 square feet for three to five people.

Alternatives Considered by the Plan Commission

At the Plan Commission’s meeting on June 9, the Commission considered three options with respect to the definition of family:

  • First, eliminating the definition of family and enforcing occupancy limits based on property standards regulations.
  • Second, increasing the number of the maximum unrelated residents in a dwelling unit from three to eight, and then making rooming houses available in all residential districts.
  • Third, changing the definition of family, moving towards a “functional” or “chosen” family definition.

After extensive discussion of the options and after listening to extensive community input, the Plan Commission voted 4-1 for the first option and asked staff to present proposed amendments to the Zoning Code that would implement that alternative.

In a July 9 memo, Staff recommends deleting the definition of family in the Zoning Code and changing the reference to the word family in various sections of the Zoning Code to “single unit,” “two-unit,” etc.

The provision limiting the occupancy of certain dwelling units to a family would be deleted under the staff’s recommendation. The number of people who could then live in a residential unit would then be based on Property Maintenance regulations.

The staff memo says the Property Maintenance Code would apply to both owner-occupied and rental properties, and enforcement would require the hiring of an additional inspector to support the additional registration processes, including calculations of occupancy based on the floor plans submitted, and additional inspections for enforcement. This inspector would also support routine rental inspections as the number of rental units continues to increase.

City staff proposes a 10-point plan:

“1: Obtain floor plans with room size measurements for all transfer stamp requests and include a notice to all rental properties renewing their registration that a floor plan with room dimensions is required for each unit (this process is in place for all newly registered rental properties). If this is not received, a notice of violation will be issued to the owner, followed by a ticket if not in compliance by the due date.

“2: Update the rental registration ordinance to require posting of the max occupancy form at the entry of all rental units. If non-compliant, a ticket can be issued. The ordinance would state that there is no requirement for notice, the violation stands immediately, and fines would be assessed upon a finding of liability by an Adjudication Hearing judge. The seller of a property would be required to disclose the maximum occupant load of the property to a buyer.

“3: Rental properties would be inspected for over-occupancy as part of the routine rental inspection and/or upon receipt of a complaint. If over-occupancy is observed, the owner would be issued an immediate ticket. The owner would be required to agree that the property would no longer be rented and over-occupied following the term of the current lease. If over 3 violations, property would be declared a nuisance and the owner would be required to make an abatement plan with the Legal Department with possible circuit court actions.

“4: Owner occupied properties would be inspected for over-occupancy on a complaint basis. If over-occupancy of an owner-occupied property is observed, the owner would work with an administrative review process, including an inspection by the Fire Department to determine safety of the structure based on the number of occupants and the egress available, to allow the occupancy as it stands if there are no risks to the safety of the structure.

“5: The area inspector would inspect the exteriors of the properties in the area around Northwestern University more frequently for exterior violations. Notices and tickets would be issued as necessary for garbage, interior grade furniture outside, ground cover, parking and general exterior maintenance issues.

“6: Neighbors would be asked to contact the Police Department for loud parties, urinating in the bushes/outside, etc. The Police Department could issue tickets to students for their behavior and break up unruly parties as necessary.

“7: Update the landlord/tenant ordinance to require the names of all tenants on the lease(s).

“8: Staff is anticipating that if the 3 unrelated requirement is lifted and more tenants are permitted, many students will not be intimidated by their landlord and/or roommates and will call Property Standards for interior concerns. Inspectors would then be better able to inspect and cite for interior conditions to ensure that the properties are better maintained.

“9: If a property has more than 3 calls for service (not related to domestic violence) and/or 3 exterior violations/complaints in a 12-month period the property would be declared a nuisance premise. The nuisance premise ordinance would need to be updated to include the above and be specific in what the calls for service/activity are for. This would require a plan to bring the property into compliance as agreed to by a team consisting of Property Standards, Legal Department, Evanston Police Department and the owner of the property. This plan could include noise meters, lighting, additional maintenance scheduling, etc.

“10: Property Standards and the Police Department would work with Northwestern University to meet with students who are planning to reside off campus at the start of each term to discuss their responsibilities as neighbors and the consequences of their actions. This would not be a mandatory requirement for any student residing off campus unless the property is determined to be a nuisance premise.”

The Plan Commission’s meeting on Thursday, July 14 is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. People may attend by zoom: see 65092 (

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...