At its March 27 meeting, the Zoning Committee of the Plan Commission discussed a request by First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske to impose stricter regulations on residential care homes in Evanston.
The five-member committee unanimously rejected one aspect of the proposal, which would have changed the zoning for the two categories of group homes. They also decided unanimously to defer a vote on a proposal to strengthen the distance requirement between any two such homes in Evanston until there is a final ruling in the court case Valencia v. City of Springfield.
These are recommendations only and will be submitted to the Plan Commission. Once the Plan Commission members evaluate the proposal and the recommendations, they will forward their recommendations to the City Council, which has ultimate authority over zoning matters.
The City has two categories of group homes, Category I homes allow four to eight unrelated people with a disability to live together in a family-type environment; Category II homes are for nine to 15 persons with a disability. Persons addicted to alcohol or drugs or who are criminal offenders on work-release or probationary programs may not live in either a Category 1 or a Category II home. At present, there are 11 residential care homes in Evanston.
Residential Care Homes are required to be licensed by the State of Illinois Department of Human Services and the City of Evanston through the Department of Health and Human Services. There is also a distance requirement in the City’s Zoning Code: “Whether the use is permitted or a special use, [a residential care home] must be a minimum of 900 feet from another Residential Care Home, Child Residential Care Home or Transitional Treatment facility.”
Under current zoning regulations, Category I residential care homes are permitted uses in 19 zoning districts and a special use in one zoning district. Category II residential care homes are permitted in six zoning districts.
Ald. Fiske’s proposal would remove Category I and Category II residential homes as permitted uses and make them special uses in the districts where they are now permitted.
A staff memo from Johanna Leonard, Director of Community Development for the City; Scott Mangum, Planning and Zoning Manager for the City; and Meagan Jones, Neighborhood Land Use Planner for the City noted that the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988 requires communities to make reasonable accommodations “to give people with disabilities an equal right to housing and prohibits communities from imposing additional barriers to community residences for people with disabilities.”
The memo cited a recent decision of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that requires the City “to affirmatively further fair housing by taking meaningful actions to overcome the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment and historic lack of access to opportunity in housing by members of protected classes, which includes person with mental and physical disabilities.” The effective date of these, however, has been pushed back.
The memo also cited a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Valencia v. City of Springfield, 883 F. 3d 959 (March 1, 2018), in which the City of Springfield refused to waive a 600 foot distance requirement between residential care homes. The Seventh Circuit relied on the FHAA, the Americans with Disability Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and affirmed a preliminary injunction entered against the City of Springfield, precluding the City from enforcing the 600-foot distance requirement during the litigation.
The United States Justice Department filed an amicus curiae brief in the Valencia case, which argued that a distance requirement was discriminatory on its face.
The memo also noted that an objective of the Comprehensive General Plan is “to maintaining the appealing character of Evanston’s neighborhoods while guiding their change. However, it is unclear whether residential care homes, with the existing distancing requirement, are affecting this objective.” The proposal also “appears to be in contrast with the object of ensuring that Evanston, along with neighboring communities, will share in the responsibility of proving for its special needs populations.”
Adding the special use process, the memo stated, “may be seen as a hindrance to entities who meet existing use standards” and that it “would not align with the Fair Housing Amendments Act.”
The staff memo, however, recommended only that the committee discuss the matter and make its recommendation to the Plan Commission.
Evanston resident Trudi Davis, who attended the meeting, said she felt the alderman’s proposal “looks like it’s making it more difficult” to establish residential care homes.
Committee member Terri Dubin agreed.
Betty Ester, another resident who attended the meeting, said she felt the distance requirement should be increased to 1,000 feet and said she feels residential care homes “make the neighborhood less attractive.”
Committee Chair Peter Isaac said that whatever recommendation the committee would make about changing the distance requirement would be provided to the City’s Legal Department for an opinion on its constitutionality. Noting that the Valencia case involved a distance of 600 feet, he said, “If 600 feet wasn’t an appropriate distance, how is 800 feet or 900 feet [the City’s present requirement] going to be appropriate? We need to know what it appropriate – so the Court can give us guidance.”
Committee member Jennifer Draper asked, “Why are we talking about it now?”
Mr. Isaac said that, with 30 to 50 homes on a block, having one residential care home on a block “does not seem to be a high concentration.”
Ms. Draper said, “It really isn’t that many, when you think about it.”
Committee member Colby Lewis turned the discussion to special uses. He said, “I’m still looking for some impetus to know why we should change it. … I think it’s [time to ask], ‘What’s broken?’ and ‘What’s wrong?’ Why would someone want to make [the process] more restrictive? … What we’re doing by making it a special use is making it more difficult.”
Ms. Ester also said she favored the proposal to make all residential care homes special uses, so the neighbors would have notice.
“That’s the reason you want to have a special use – to give notice?” Mr. Lewis asked. “Why are these people different?”
Carolyn Keel, Executive Director of Rimland Services, which has several residential care homes for adults with autism, said, “We support adults with autism.” She said a special use would make it more difficult to get funding to establish another house in Evanston.
Committee Chair Peter Isaac said he did not think any homeowner would enter into a contract to sell the home if the sale were subject to a special use.
Ms. Ester said, “We have to be conscious of what we’re putting into the neighborhood.”
Mr. Lewis said, “The reason to make it a special use is to allow control – controlling where things go. If you allow it everywhere – we’re allowing people to live freely. The question seems to me to be, ‘Do we think this kind of home needs control or do we let them flow?’”
Ms. Dubin said, “I’m for the flowing mode.” She also said, “These are people – brothers and sisters, family members. Why shouldn’t they be able to live here – live in a community near their family?”
Ms. Davis said, “If we approve this – is that how we want to present who we are?”
Committee member Carol Goddard said making the homes a special use “would bring out all the people opposed.” She also said the process could embarrass the people who would live in the homes.
She made a motion that the committee recommend to the Plan Commission that the ordinance governing residential care homes be kept “as it is.” Committee members unanimously approved a motion to reject making Category I and Category II residential care homes special uses.
Referring to the distance requirement, Mr. Isaac said the court would ultimately decide it. He also said, “The ordinance as written seems to be just fine, and we don’t know why [the proposal] was brought to us.”
Mr. Lewis made a motion, which was unanimously approved, that no action be taken with regard to a distance requirement “until such time as the court cases are settled.”