Residents of Evanston’s Ninth Ward learned at a Wednesday, Sept. 21, virtual meeting about a current study examining how the city’s zoning laws impact the quality of life and economic well-being of Evanston residents.

Portion of City of Evanston zoning map Credit: City of Evanston

Rodney Orr, a community organizer with Connections for the Homeless, explained to those attending about his organization’s Equitable Zoning Project. The initiative was launched with a 2021 analysis from the Cincinnati-based consultancy ZoneCo, which concluded that “there is a lot of room for improvement” in Evanston zoning codes, which as they stand make little room for residents’ well-being, equity and prosperity, according to Orr.

City Council member Juan Geracaris, who hosted the meeting, noted that he had been appointed to the Housing & Community Development Committee, adding, “I’m looking forward to working with the affordable housing piece for the community. It’s not an easy thing to tackle.”

Connections for the Homeless applied for several grants to undertake the study, and has been working with seven community organizations – among them Evanston NAACPthe Center for Independent Futures and Evanston Own It – to reach out to stakeholders and community members. Orr said Connections expects to have the data collection finished by the end of the year, with a report to follow soon after. 

Juan Geracaris (City of Evanston photo)

He noted that Connections’ mission has, in some respects, been impeded by many of the city’s zoning rules. To succeed, Connections must be able to access affordable housing for its clients; that affordable housing, in turn, has been restricted thanks to various zoning regulations.  

“Homelessness is really affected by what a city allows to be built in certain areas,” Orr said. “Zoning can make it affordable [for developers and builders] to build housing that is affordable for people.”

He added that about half of Evanstonians spend 30% or more of their income on housing. As such the study begins with a root question: Are all Evanston residents feeling as if they benefit from the zoning rules in place?

Connections officials hope that, when the city’s next comprehensive plan is compiled, zoning rules will be applied with more of an equity lens, Orr said. “Our groups are really interested in getting the information out there about how much zoning impacts us.”