Members of Evanston’s Land Use Commission could not reach a decision Wednesday night regarding the Margarita Inn, 1566 Oak Ave., and its designation as a “rooming house.”
The Land Use Commission heard from Evanston resident Chris Dillow, who appealed a zoning administrator’s decision that the hotel-turned-homeless-shelter qualifies as a rooming house.
Dillow was joined by John Cleave, a neighbor of the Margarita Inn who was added as a co-appellant after it was determined that Dillow lives more than 500 feet from the property and is thus not a valid appellant.
Dillow and Cleave argued that the facility, managed by local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless, does not match the zoning definition of a rooming house and better aligns with the definition for a transitional shelter, a transitional treatment shelter or an assisted living facility.
After hearing from Dillow, Cleave and other community members who spoke up during public comment, commissioners entered a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, which resulted in a 4-3 vote in favor of the zoning administrator’s original designation.
Because a majority vote of the commission’s 10 members is required to move forward, the matter will be revisited at its next meeting on May 25. This will also allow commissioners not present Wednesday night to cast their votes.
The debate about whether the Margarita Inn should or should not be considered a rooming house began in February when Connections submitted an application to the city’s Zoning Department.
The nonprofit began sheltering vulnerable populations in the Margarita Inn two years ago under a pandemic-induced emergency declaration.
In hopes of making the arrangement permanent, Connections argued that its operations are compliant with a 1974 ordinance that granted the Margarita Inn rooming house status.
City Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz responded in March stating that the facility does operate as a rooming house but its rooming house special-use permit had expired.
Dillow and Cleave’s appeal targeted only the first half of Klotz’s response, which called the facility a rooming house.
“I’m urging you all to reject the idea that it’s a rooming house,” said Cleave. “Let’s call it a special case. Let’s let Connections and the city work together to define this thing in a way that provides protections both for the neighbors that are around it and for the residents that are living in Margarita Inn.”
Cleave argued that the facility will not be run as a rooming house but as a sort of hybrid model. He added that because Connections has referred to the facility as a “homeless shelter,” it should be considered a transitional shelter, which is the zoning term for an emergency homeless shelter.
Klotz said the facility does not meet the definition of a transitional shelter because such shelters are only meant for transient guests, and residents at the Margarita Inn live there an average of 10 months.
Commissioner Myrna Arevalo later added that those residing in transitional shelters line up in front of the facility every day, are expected to leave every morning, and have no permanent place for their belongings.
“That is what a transitional shelter is,” said Arevalo. “It’s very different [from the Margarita Inn].”
Klotz also rejected the other zoning definitions that Cleave suggested. She said according to the zoning ordinance, transitional treatment shelters are specifically for drug rehabilitation and that assisted living facilities are licensed by the state, so neither fit the facility that Connections is operating.
Commissioners agreed that none of the zoning definitions are perfect, but they disagreed on whether Klotz made the right choice in calling the facility a rooming house.
Land Use Commission Chair Matt Rodgers said that Klotz appropriately deemed the Margarita Inn a rooming house, considering that it is the most suitable option.
Commissioner Jeanne Lindwall disagreed, saying the facility needs its own definition. “The real dilemma is that we do not have a suitable definition for this kind of facility,” she said.
Commissioner Kristine Westerberg added that due to the extent of services offered at the facility, it does not appear to be a rooming house.
Rodgers insisted that the commissioners must choose from existing definitions, of which he believes “rooming house” to be best.
Commissioners will revisit the discussion at the next Land Use Commission meeting, when they will also hear from another appellant, the owner of the property, who is appealing the second part of Klotz’s response, that the Margarita Inn’s special-use permit expired.
Before the meeting adjourned, Rodgers also asked that Connections submit a special use application within the next 10 days so commissioners can address all aspects of the case.
“We will do that,” said William McKenna, an attorney for Connections who attended the meeting.