The Evanston Plan Commision reached a split vote July 14 after hearing a proposal that would both eliminate the word “family” from the City’s zoning ordinances and repeal a rule prohibiting more than three unrelated persons sharing a living space.

With the split vote, the repeal next heads to the Evanston Planning and Development Committee without a specific recommendation from the Commission.

Under the proposal, “single-family home” would be referred to as a “single-unit home,” for example. Other types of affected facilities would be referred to as “dwellings.”

But the logistics of repealing the so-called “3-unrelated” rule took up most of the July 14 discussion. Many Evanstonians living close to Northwestern University fear that such a switch opens the door for more landlords to purchase single-family homes and convert them to student housing. 

Supporters of the repeal claim it would further local efforts in supporting housing-stability and equity. In an Evanston RoundTable commentary published in April 2021, Connections for the Homeless Executive Director Betty Bogg noted many constituencies, among them homeless youth, seniors and lower-wage workers, would benefit from the repeal.

“We hope that, by summer, three more young people experiencing homelessness can move into our two-flat and continue their journey to self-sufficiency,” Ms. Bogg wrote at the time.

Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy at Connections for the Homeless, emphasized at the July 14 meeting that advocates have not suggested the ordinance repeal would drive down the price of housing, as opponents have suggested. 

“What we have said is that it would allow people to spend less on their housing by virtue of sharing that cost and splitting it up,” Ms. Loellbach said. She added that the current ordinance does not appear to be working anyway, since a number of residents testified at the meeting about the problems they’ve already encountered with declining property standards once student housing becomes prevalent in the neighborhood. 

Indeed, that was the testimony from resident Cecile McHugh, who warned that the repeal could be exploited by unscrupulous landlords. She lives close to the NU campus and described properties that have already born the trademarks of neglectful student housing, such as interior furniture kept on porches and loud noises. 

Ms. McHugh asked the Commission to “please help us push back against existing nuisances rather than make this change which exacerbates the nuisances [already] here. Enforce the current regulations, rather than change the regulations, because they are not enforced.”

Evanston real estate agent Bonnie Wilson, who served as Evanston Township Assessor from 2009 to 2014, nevertheless praised the proposed repeal, noting that she had fielded inquiries from older, unrelated clients interested in sharing expenses under one roof.

A prominent planning expert also urged the Commission to proceed with extreme caution before recommending a change. At the behest of Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, River Forest-based Attorney/Planning Consultant Daniel Lauber warned that the changes would have serious consequences for the City’s stated goals related to equity and housing stability. Mr. Lauber was formerly an Evanston resident. 

“If the City of Evanston were to eliminate the definition of ‘family,’ it would instantly invalidate the City’s provisions for community residences and group homes,” he said. 

Mr. Lauber added that such dwellings would end up congregating in less-expensive neighborhoods, negating any hope for fuller community integration for residents, while attracting more unscrupulous owner-operators of such homes to the area. He suggested that the City’s 2nd and 5th Wards would ultimately see many such facilities as a result of the repeal. 

Mr. Lauber suggested, rather than an outright change, that the City adopt a more fluid definition of the word “family” so that residents could choose to live together as a cohesive unit, whether as a family related by blood or a family by choice, without triggering immediate skepticism. 

Commissioner Kristine Westerberg said that she was concerned the staff report lacked a means by which to gauge the success of the suggested changes. She also was skeptical that one new inspector—the City staff’s suggestion—would not be sufficient. 

“If we’re going to make a change that takes the language away, clearly enforcement is going to be an issue,” Commissioner Westerberg said. “I think added resources and some kind of evaluation program is going to be helpful in knowing how all of this is going to work.”

Commissioner Matt Rodgers said that following up on nuisance landlords was of paramount importance. “Once a couple of [landlords] get taken to court and have issues with licensure or something like that, I think you’re going to see people say that the City is beginning to take this seriously and that they will begin to fall in line with the new rules,” he added.

Commission Chair Jeanne Lindwall called eliminating the definition of family “a bad idea,” and said that it was premature for City Council to consider the document since it mentions no funding strategy and only touches on addressing significant ancillary issues. Commissioner George Halik suggested that it wasn’t the Commission’s responsibility to work out those details; Commissioner Lindwall agreed with that, but said that she still could not support sending along something of this scope with relatively little supporting evidence. 

Commissioners Lindwall, Draper and Westerberg  voted against the proposal, while Commissioners Halik, Hewko and Rodgers voted for it. Commissioner Brian Johnson was not present for the vote.