Evanston-based nonprofit Connections for the Homeless began housing homeless people at the Margarita Inn two years ago while under a pandemic-induced declaration of emergency. Now, the organization is pursuing a special use permit necessary to keep operating it as a shelter. Credit: Adina Keeling

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.

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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  1. At the May 11 Land Use Commission meeting, Chair Rodgers inappropriately called for Connections to submit a special use application within ten days. He also urged the board commissioners to come to a speedy decision for the sake of expediting the Land Use Commission schedule. This was also inappropriate, since he had earlier declared the appeal “a complicated issue.” The zoning appeal requires thorough consideration, not expedient action. There is and continues to be an unmistakable impact to the neighborhood and city which needs to be fully examined.

    This center is used for the transition from homelessness, treatment of mentally ill, provision of social services, and administration of medical services as cited by Connection for the Homeless. This surely seems like something other than a rooming house.

    The city and commission need to understand the homeless here are from Skokie, Morton Grove, North Chicago, or anyplace there are homeless. This, then artificially increases the Evanston homeless population. It is a Regional Homeless Center, not just one for Evanston’s homeless.

    Once established in Evanston without restrictions, controls, and oversight, such centers can propagate as more homeless find their way to Evanston’s services. Does Evanston want to support the homeless population of the North Suburban Cook County?

    Again, the concerns are not about a homeless center but about the improper zoning classification. Connections considers their residents to be simple boarders, like anyone who checks in to a hotel or lives at a fraternity/sorority house. Really? We most certainly disagree.

    Simple home alterations involve more debate that was given to this situation which impacts not only the neighborhood, but the re-emerging Davis Street businesses, adjacent museum, North Light Theater, and the schools on Davis Street (Montessori and Beacon Academy).

    The city, ward, and neighborhood deserve thorough and thoughtful consideration of this situation, not quick decisions which would have very long-term impacts such as is now being experienced at Albany Care.

  2. My edited letter to Ms. Gandurski and Mr. Biss,

    Good Morning Ms. Gandurski and Mr. Biss,

    I strongly the condemn the undue influence imposed by Matt Rogers, Chief Commissioner, on the appellant (myself) and the board last evening and ask that the commissioners, including those not present, given another opportunity to vote on the appeal.

    Prior to the meeting, Mr. Rogers advised me to disregard certain parts of our appeal as they would be taken up in a following appeal prepared by Michael Pure, owner of the Margarita Inn. He disclosed to me that they are appealing the second clause of Ms. Klotz’s ruling where the Special Use was deemed expired. Further, he stated that he would cut short our appeal, if necessary, in order not to confuse the committee. I strongly protested to his advice and we provided our appeal in full.

    Additionally, he attempted to prejudice the commission by creating an incomplete set of choices. He claimed that they needed to choose either Rooming House or another special use while NOT stating they could simply reverse the interpretation. Even after all but two commissioners stated they did not believe Rooming House was proper, including those that ultimately voted ‘yes’, Mr. Rogers continued to state that they had to choose an alternative – knowing no other alternative was more accurate. When I protested (out of turn), he claimed the committee knew of this alternative, however: this was the first time an appeal of this sort has been brought to this committee and it was clear by some of the faces on the committee, they were not aware.

    Ms. Klotz then suggested to the commission that they should make a decision based on the closest definition – which is out of order for Staff at a legislative hearing.

    When Ms. Lindwall or Ms. Westerberg pointed out that after a simple reversal, it would be incumbent on Connections for the Homeless to properly describe their newly formed special use in application, Mr. Rogers’ rationale for not allowing this proper alternative was that it could drag out the proceedings. It is clearly proper to have Connections for the Homeless take this step and I don’t believe this is a valid reason to circumvent due process.

    Finally, Mr. Rogers broke rules when he allowed the attorneys for Connections for the Homeless to speak, without standing, after all testimony and public comments were complete. – further prejudicing the proceedings.

    Please take the time to watch the proceedings and make your own judgement. I ask in all fairness that we either re-do this appeal hearing with all options and alternative made clear to the commissioners – or at the very least explain the options to the commissioners in full detail and ask them all to vote again.

    The impact of this decision is too great to have been influenced by a lack of clear guidance, improper influence, improper testimony, and the impatience of the chief commissioner.


    Chris Dillow