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Should Evanston still limit the number of unrelated co-habitants?

Evanston may change his 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 Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center Thursday evening about that very possibility. Currently, Evanston has an ordinance in place for bidding more than three unrelated people to rent and live together in the city.

Fair housing attorney and city planning consultant Daniel Lauber, far 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 that the ordinance may have on housing affordability by barring groups of people from joining together to split living costs if they so desire.

At Thursday’s meeting, several members of the public and housing activists supported the idea of ​​eliminating the rule, but others also 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 to 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 concerns 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 considered 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, 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 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, shape or form, 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.”

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