Leaders from the City of Evanston and Connections for the Homeless said Evanston’s zoning code and comprehensive plan are outdated and reinforce a socioeconomic, racial divide.

An audience of 30 viewers tuned into a Wednesday night webinar, hosted by Community Alliance for Better Government, to find ways to bring equitable housing to Evanston.

The webinar featured local housing policy experts Sarah Flax, the city’s community development director; and Sue Loellbach, Connections for the Homeless manager of advocacy. Speakers from the Chicago-based organizations Elevated Chicago and Enterprise Community Foundation also weighed in on the topic.

An integral part of increasing affordable, equitable housing in Evanston is bringing the city’s zoning code and comprehensive plan to the 21st century, speakers said. The zoning code dictates the guidelines of virtually any development in the city. The comprehensive plan aligns the city’s goals and policies with the built environment, transportation, economic development and sustainability.

Sue Loellbach, Connections for the Homeless, said the zoning code follows the same pattern of harm the city’s history of redlining did to the Fifth Ward, as shown in the city’s Evanston Project for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN). The image compares the zoning code (left) to the life expectancy map featured in the EPLAN. Credit: Gina Castro

Evanston’s zoning code was adopted in 1993 and has been amended dozens of times, which Flax says causes the code and map to be difficult to interpret. Although the city spans only 7.8 square miles, it has 34 zoning districts, Flax said.

The city’s zoning code has become more restrictive than it was when the city was established, Flax said.

The code limits many areas’ land use to single-family development rather than developments that could utilize the space for a larger number of people at an affordable rate. This restriction has contributed to Evanston’s loss of a middle class, Flax said.

“It’s a mess,” Flax said. “This complicated system means that almost anytime anybody tries to do anything, especially anything that’s new and different like larger developments for affordable housing, our code triggers a need for excessive zoning relief. It’s a very, very complicated process of going through to get approvals of almost anything.”

Connections for the Homeless established the program Joining Forces for Affordable Housing to answer a single question: Are all Evanston residents feeling the benefit from zoning?

An analysis from ZoneCo, a zoning consultant firm, found that the city’s zoning, similar to the city’s history of redlining, segregates lower incomes and communities of color to the historically Black Fifth Ward, Loellbach said. Joining Forces discovered this similarity when it reviewed the city’s Evanston Project for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN). The EPLAN compares health outcomes to the 1935 redlining map, which caused disinvestment of the Fifth Ward and racial segregation. The EPLAN shows that Evanston’s history of redlining continues to negatively impact the Fifth Ward’s health, education and income.

The Fifth Ward is one of the only areas in the city zoned for two-family residences. While wards with a higher income and white population, such as the Sixth and Seventh wards, are zoned for single-family residences. This zoning code restriction limits individuals and families with a lower income to the Fifth Ward.

“So that’s one of the things that made us think, OK, there’s some link here between how we’re using our land and how people are doing,” Loellbach said.

The city’s comprehensive plan hasn’t been updated since 2000, and that update was a “tweak” to the 1972 plan, Flax explained. This comprehensive plan no longer reflects the city’s goals on issues like repairing racial harm. It doesn’t mention reparations or the city’s declining Black population.

“It [the comprehensive plan] doesn’t contemplate things like global and regional changes,” Flax said. “Some of the technology changes. There’s nothing about climate change or actions we need to mitigate that. It doesn’t address numerous community issues, including aging in place to the polarization of wealth in Evanston.”

The city issued a request for proposals for developing a new comprehensive plan and zoning code on April 6. Proposals are due May 16.

The group Joining Forces for Affordable Housing has just wrapped up gathering community input, its second phase of the project. The group surveyed more than 415 people and completed focus groups that involved 110 people, Loellbach said. Now Joining Forces for Affordable Housing is analyzing data and preparing a report. There’s no date for the final report at this time.

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. It is wildly inappropriate for a non-governmental organization, such as Connections for the Homeless, to be a principal in the development of zoning laws. If the city needs assistance, there are many consultants that could be engaged.

    1. Oh yes agreed just like the white washed ward map they have done! Seems like Evanston only cares about the white and wealthy

  2. Zoning is a tool, just like a hammer, and when used correctly it can be helpful- if used incorrectly it can become a weapon. Yes, all comprehensive plans and zoning codes should be updated-. Most cities update their plans with full community participation every 10-20 years in order to stay up with the changing times.

    Our zoning code has been updated over 900 times since 1993 according to the City of Evanston Municipal Code https://library.municode.com/il/evanston/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=LIST_AMENDING_ORD_INCORPORATED_AFTERADORNO43-O-93.

    Our comprehensive plans is the vision for our community, https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/33310/636501392398000000It speaks to the importance of neighborhoods, business districts, parks etc. and describing how different zoning districts interact with other. There have also been many new plans in the past 10 years, the Downtown Plan, West Side Overlay Plan, Central Street Master Plan, Lakefront Master Plan,

    Yes, we need to update and revise our code and plan but it is also important to recognize that a huge problem with Evanston Zoning is the lack of the city to follow it’s code or plans- this causes confusion and residents and developers.

    This WED MAY 17th Central Street Neighbors Association is hosting a Community Conversation on Zoning:-the good the bad and what you need to know. AND there will be an update on Northwestern Proposals to change zoning in the U2 district and rebuilding the stadium. This will be at held at the Civic Center in the Parasol Room. Doors open at 6:30 program starts at 7:00. https://centralstreetneighbors.com/

  3. I’d be happy to drive Ms. Flax around Evanston more broadly to point out two and three family residential buildings in several of Evanston’s wards, including the 1st, 6th, 7th and 4th. And there are also many single family homes in the 5th.
    Mary Anne Wexler

    1. According to a analysis done the
      1st ward has about 300 affordable housing units
      4th ward has about 230 affordable housing units
      5th ward has about 350
      affordable housing units
      6th ward has 1 affordable housing unit
      7th ward has less than 5 affordable housing units
      So as you see it’s pretty much concentrated in the 5th ward and the primarly white wealthy neighborhoods has little to none. So you can see where the 5th ward frustration of been redlined is coming from!

  4. Use of “one of the only” really means “the only”, does it not? Say what you mean and mean what you say.

  5. Interesting when my group in the 5th ward mentioned in a city meeting that the 5th ward was being redlined and that affordable housing was mostly concentrated In black and brown communities flax did not seem to agreed and actually seemed like she shot the idea down! Making it seem like we were just making things up!

  6. I’d like to know if Sue Loellbach, Connections for the Homeless Manager of Advocacy. has any solid business/real estate expertise…???

    IMO the Joining Forces for Affordable Housing site simply consists of the typical social work platitudes put forth by many non – profits (most of their funding, of course, comes from *public* monies), not anything grounded in practical business/commercial/urban planning acumen…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

    1. A non-Evanston resident and head of advocacy for Connections for the Homeless, has been the lone, passionate voice for most every luxury high rise developer who has come through this town wanting to build egregiously out of zone high rises downtown for exchange of tiny micro affordable housing units that are inappropriate for the many families who need AH. It is really unfortunate that this organization focused on supposed “affordability” has no regard for the effects of the luxury mega developments that have made Evanston less affordable, driven up rents, fueled gentrification and priced so many long-time Evanston residents out of town. No regard for the effects on neighborhoods or neighbors when buildings are approved that are nearly twice as large as they are supposed to be, or set precedents for subsequent developers to do the same.

      And look at the handiwork downtown. Six giant high rises approved in last few years. These high-rises have changed the face of Downtown, driven out independent businesses and made it so much less appealing…with another one on the horizon aiming to take over another. I expect Connections will champion it.

      We need transparency if there are any developer donations given to this organization.

      PS: Why is Connections hiring consulting firms (with the $6 million COE gives them?) and now dictating our zoning? How does this organization end up running this city?