Over a year ago, the current City Council set up a Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee to tackle a few major issues that have plagued Evanston for years, including rental property standards enforcement and the ever-controversial “three-unrelated rule,” which bars more than three people from renting the same apartment or house unless they count as a “family” as defined by the city.

Despite spending months debating those topics and hearing from residents about their opinions, the subcommittee has yet to make any formal recommendations on either topic to the broader Planning and Development Committee.

The city’s Planning and Development Housing Subcommittee meets in August. At that session, the panel began discussing the three-unrelated rule. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Instead, the group has met just nine times out of 19 scheduled meetings since October 2021, with the other gatherings either canceled or rescheduled. Initially, the new City Council that came on board in spring 2021 showed support for eliminating the city’s narrow definition of a family and for creating a new system that would require all landlords to obtain a license to run their rental properties.

But in the months of subcommittee meetings that followed, city staff, residents and visiting experts brought up concerns about both proposals. The panel reached an impasse, and council members on the subcommittee have abandoned the rental licensing proposal in favor of more strictly enforcing the city’s existing rental registration system.

At the group’s latest virtual meeting on Tuesday evening, City Council Members Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, asked subcommittee chair and First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly multiple times to limit public comments and conversations about items not on the meeting agenda. Kelly disagreed, arguing that hearing from members of the public about their concerns regarding housing and zoning is always important for the council.

“We’ve now talked for the last 20 minutes about three recommendations that are coming out of [another] working group,” Burns said. “Just moving forward, please allow those recommendations to be discussed at Planning and Development, and if we need to bring anything back to this work, we can. But let’s not waste time. We just discussed things that are on their way to Planning and Development, and we haven’t been able to really get to the meat of the discussion.”

Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns Credit: Richard Cahan

The recommendations that Burns referenced involve new ideas for the city to keep track of rental properties, but Kelly said she saw those topics as also part of “the meat of the discussion.”

The main item on Tuesday’s agenda for the subcommittee meeting, though, was a conversation about the three-unrelated rule.

Over the last few subcommittee meetings, including on Tuesday, Reid has repeatedly voiced his opinion that the three-unrelated rule damages local access to affordable housing by keeping people from living together in groups to save money on rent.

“I hope we can run more regimented meetings to get to the actual meat of what we’re trying to do here, but I do not believe that the city should be in the business of defining families and forcing landlords or other people to define what a family is,” Reid said. “We want to make sure that we have clear codes on how many people can occupy a certain amount of habitable space, but we don’t want to be defining families.”

Echoing Reid’s comments, Nefrette Halim, who owns and rents out a large number of properties in Evanston, said she often feels uncomfortable asking her tenants if they are related or what kind of relationship they have to each other.

Other residents who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting said they feared a “population explosion” around Northwestern University’s campus if the city eliminated the definition of family and the three-unrelated rule. One person living in the area closest to the college added that a change to the rule “will rapidly destroy the neighborhoods around Northwestern” because of overpopulated student housing and loud parties.

But others, including Halim, argued that the three-unrelated rule does not necessarily affect student housing. Lisa Pildes, who has lived in the Firemen’s Park neighborhood of Evanston for several decades, said many families probably would prefer living near a house of four quiet Northwestern students who follow local laws, rather than a loud and unruly apartment of only three students.

Number of rental inspections per block conducted by the city in 2021. Credit: City of Evanston

In any case, the subcommittee – and the city as a whole – has yet to identify a solution to this debate about what a family is and how many unrelated people should be allowed to live together in one unit.

One point of progress, though, is that the city’s property inspections team is working to build a map of registered rental properties that would be publicly available and searchable. That way, renters and homeowners should be able to identify unregistered properties more easily, according to city Property Maintenance Supervisor Angel Schnur.

Still, even with some signs of movement on these topics, some residents watching Tuesday’s meeting wanted to see the city make actual decisions when it comes to rental registration enforcement and the three-unrelated rule.

“I don’t see this committee as taking the whole-town approach,” Pildes said, asking council members to be more aggressive about tackling these issues. “I know you talk about it, but I just haven’t seen you making any progress on it, and I would like to see that.”

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...

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