Evanston may change its definition of a family unit or alter the cap on the number of unrelated individuals who can rent an apartment or house together, Council Member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) said during a Thursday meeting.

The Planning and Development Housing subcommittee, on which Kelly and several other council members serve, hosted a conversation at the Morton Civic Center Thursday evening about that very possibility. Currently, Evanston has an ordinance in place forbidding more than three unrelated people to rent and live together in the city.

Fair housing attorney and city planning consultant Daniel Lauber (left) speaks at Thursday’s housing subcommittee meeting. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Over the years, though, residents and community organizations have expressed concern about the impact the ordinance may have on housing affordability by barring groups of people from joining together to split living costs if they so desire.

At the meeting several members of the public and housing activists supported eliminating the rule, but others said it would give a “free pass” to absentee landlords who pack 10 or more Northwestern students into a single home with little maintenance or regard for local laws.

“This particular ordinance is one that just doesn’t fit with our times and the needs of our community,” said Cheryl Lawrence, the chief executive officer of local fair housing nonprofit Open Communities. “The cost of housing is simply too expensive to expect that many senior citizens, students and even many middle-income people, including teachers and others, can afford to live in Evanston without sharing expenses.”

A representative for Connections for the Homeless, another local nonprofit, also spoke in favor of eliminating the limit on non-family housing.

But several others also had significant worries about the possibility of more and more large student houses encroaching on life in the neighborhoods near Northwestern University if the city got rid of the so-called “three-unrelated rule.”

For instance, local small landlord and longtime Evanston resident Carlis Sutton said allowing any number of people to live in a home or apartment regardless of family ties would hasten gentrification across Evanston and create higher property taxes that would drive out lower-income residents who have lived in the city for decades. Still, he did acknowledge that the definition of a family should no longer be a consideration because so many different groups of people, related or not, can constitute a family.

Tina Paden, another small landlord, said she saw expanding the number of unrelated people who can rent together as “an exception for Northwestern” that would let absentee landlords off the hook for their lack of compliance with the three-unrelated rule.

“It’s just an excuse to give a pass to people to not follow the laws that are currently on the books,” Paden said. “It should not be changed. It should be enforced how it is right now.”

For her part, council member Kelly said Thursday’s conversation was only the first in what will likely be several months of discussions and analysis of the current rule and how it could be changed to benefit housing affordability while still addressing the concerns brought up by residents.

Legal ramifications

Later in the meeting, Daniel Lauber, a zoning and fair housing attorney and a city planning consultant, gave a presentation to the subcommittee and other attendees about what could happen if the city does move forward with amending the current law.

Most importantly, if the city were to simply do away with its definition of family and any limit on the number of unrelated people who can live together, it would no longer have any power to regulate community residences for people with disabilities or recovery communities for people struggling with addiction, Lauber said. The rules on the books for those communities and for all other residents have to be the same for the city to comply with the federal Fair Housing Act.

Over the last several decades, studies have shown that cities without any requirements for community residences, sober-living homes or recovery communities wind up with clusters of those types of houses in the same area, which can reduce the effectiveness of those programs, according to Lauber. Plus, people with disabilities and addiction issues are historically vulnerable populations and clustering them together can make them more susceptible to scammers or people looking to exploit them, he said.

As a result, the city likely needs a new zoning law to address its specific situation in order to ensure community residences and group homes are properly spaced apart from one another and so that unrelated people have better opportunities to live together, according to Lauber. That might involve a more complex system that would require certification for group homes or a special use permit in certain circumstances.

Although the process is in the early stages, most stakeholders wanted change to the current law in some way, and Lauber said he was confident the city could put its expertise to use to find a solution.

“I think, with some innovative thinking, it’s possible to come up with ways to provide more student housing that would have to be fairly near the university,” Lauber said. “Evanston’s got an awful lot of very innovative, thoughtful people. If we look outside the box, I think we could come up with some ways to address that, which will still preserve your abilities to zone for community residences and require licensing for them.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

5 replies on “Should Evanston still limit the number of unrelated co-habitants?”

  1. Why did the City of Evanston pay Daniel Lauber to give his opinion about a change to the zoning ordinance during a “conversation” with a group of fewer than 25 people?

    City Staff has exhaustively researched and proposed an alternative to the current ordinance’s outdated definition of family with its “three-unrelated” rule and presented it in formal and well-advertised Land Use Commission meetings. The alternative continues to place a cap on rental occupancy and replaces “family” with “housekeeping unit” which better encompasses the variety of living arrangements today.

    Were any of Staff’s recommendations presented during the conversation? Any talk of other municipalities’ ordinances to cap rental occupancy? Any discussion about other municipalities’ success limiting unscrupulous landlords from creating student housing in single-family homes?

    We don’t need to pay lawyers in private practice to talk about their views in a small-group conversation. We need City Staff to present its carefully researched, and thoughtfully written and detailed, recommendation for an alternative zoning ordinance in the much larger, formal, public setting of a Commission meeting.

  2. I can understand how the reporter could have gotten a bit confused given the huge amount of information I shared with the committee and the public. However, to set the record straight, I never said that “clustering them [people with disabilities] together can make them more susceptible to scammers or people looking to exploit them, he said.”

    I said that it is essential to require that community residences and recovery communities be licensed or certified in Evanston and elsewhere in order to protect vulnerable folks with disabilities — including people in recovery from substance use disorder — from incompetent operators and from the many scam artists who abuse, exploit, steal from, and mistreat them. And I hope I made it clear that under the current state of Fair Housing law, if the City of Evanston were to abolish its defintion of “family” or allow any number of unrelated people to dwell together, then it would lose its legal ability to require community residences and recovery communities to be licensed/certified and to require a rational spacing distance between them as permitted uses to help assure that their residents can undergo normalization and community integration while emulating a family — which clustering on a block undermines.

    I was simply identifying the unintended consequences of the proposals on definition of “family” so the city’s decision makers would understand the full ramifications of these proposals and how adopting them would leave people with disabilities — especially those in recovery — without protection from incompetent operators and the scam artists who sully the name of all the competent and responsible operators of sober homes. I encourage anybody who wants to understand the full picture, to view the video of this Housing Subcommittee meeting once it is posted online.

  3. A real world example of the impact on enforcing the 3 unrelated rule is happening on Orrington and Foster right now. A landlord who had historically rented a single family home up to 7 NU students had charged ~$6,000 per month for the home. Since neighbors complained about behavior there, the city enforced the 3 unrelated rule, and the house is now on the market for $4,800 and available to anyone in the market. It likely won’t get even that price. So explain to me how enforcing the rule around campus and prohibiting price gouging of students doesn’t create more affordable housing in desirable locations around campus? Now a family or group of people that can follow the laws will have a chance to live somewhere they were historically priced out of.

    1. In response to Mr Leisinger, and the resolution of a landlord exploiting students, the problem of badly behaving students could be solved without the 3 Unrelated Rule. If the problem is noise or trash on property, there are ordinances to prevent that. More importantly, the health and safety regulations that would be enforced are based on the square feet of the living unit and the number of residents.

  4. I’m surprised to hear that this law is still on the books, because it doesn’t seem to be strictly enforced. I often hear of four, five or more NU students sharing a rented house. Are there only three on the lease, and the others are off-the-books subletters?

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