Accessory dwelling unit (ADU) types

The Evanston Plan Commission, by a 3-2 vote, advanced a proposal that would impose a six-month moratorium on permitting and construction of non-owner occupied accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The proposal, stemming from a June 28 referral by the city’s Planning & Development Committee, rose from a growing concern by community members that absentee landlords would purchase large homes in close proximity to Northwestern University from which they would create rental units for student housing.

The moratorium proposal now heads to the full City Council, while a Planning & Development subcommittee will in the meantime closely study the implications of current regulations pertaining to ADUs in Evanston. ADUs have recently been heralded as a means by which homeowners can earn extra income by renting out to others, or provide less-expensive housing for family members. 

In 2021 there has been one permit issued specifically for a new internal or attached ADU, said City Neighborhood & Land Use Planner Meagan Jones. She added that City Staff has received a number of inquiries about requirements, however.           

Council Member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said that, beyond concerns about student behavior, outside real-estate investors can have a negative impact, driving up prices and limiting housing access for residents with “more modest means,” citing Maple Avenue near Fireman’s Park as an example.

She added, “Since I [have] lived in Evanston since the 1970s, I’ve seen that neighborhood change quite a bit. … When we moved to Evanston, that neighborhood was a mixture of owner-occupied and rental properties, with the rental properties rented primarily to families and just a few to Northwestern graduate students. But since then, many of those properties have been bought by investors and turned into student housing.”

Revelle warned that similar changes were taking place on Sherman and Orrington Avenues.

“‘Moratorium’ sounds like a harsh word, so I don’t want us to get thrown by that, added Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward. “It’s just so that we take a pause, and we’re only talking about a very tiny fraction of the ADUs. Most of the ADUs are owner-occupied – that’s the intention of them.”

But some speaking at the meeting suggested that the moratorium would be an overreach by the City, needlessly complicating prospects for well-intentioned and responsible homeowners looking to add an ADU.

City Housing & Grants Manager Sarah Flax cautioned that banks shy away from lending to home buyers facing such restrictions, since their prospects for resale might be diminished.

“I would suggest that the lack of speed in the development of ADUs [locally] really suggests that we don’t have a tsunami of ADUs that are going to take over the world,” she added.

Commissioner George Halik said he disliked the word “moratorium” but approved of the proposed study. “I think that there has been so much information that has been added to the conversation recently that it needs to be taken into consideration,” he added.

Commissioner John Hewko inquired why normal regulatory measures – such as regular inspections and landlord fines—would not be sufficient. Revelle emphasized, however, that the subcommittee might indeed reach that conclusion.

She added, “Right now, we would like six months to look at all the options and see what kind of combination of options would best serve the community.”

Commissioner Matt Rodgers suggested that the proposal was second-guessing prior approvals for ADUs the committee and others have already put through.

“If we are going to look at this through the lens of ‘standards,’ I would like to know what standards have changed, because I am seeing a number of things in the recitals for the draft ordinance that I don’t know to be true—and I don’t know if anyone knows these to be true,” Rodgers said.

Commission Chair Jeanne Lindwall disagreed. Prior to the Commission’s 3-2 vote advancing the proposal, she said, “Allowing a six-month moratorium to consider all of these issues is appropriate, so I will be voting in favor.”

The Commission on July 28 also forwarded to City Council a revised proposal outlining specific regulations for so-called “live-work” units, wherein business owners or employees would occupy a living space adjacent to a business.

Such dwellings are common in Evanston but have been only loosely regulated, according to City Staff. The proposal, introduced at the Commission’s July 14 meeting, would specifically allow live-work units in most non-residential and non-university zoning districts.