City of Evanston officials this evening responded to outrage among Northwestern University students about reports the city plans to more rigorously enforce housing occupancy restrictions by saying they've always enforced the rules.
A city ordinance bars more than three unrelated persons from living in a single dwelling unit regardless of the unit's size, but does not impose similar restrictions on the number of related persons who may share a dwelling.
The only exception to the limit on unrelated individuals living together would require a landlord to obtain a special use permit as a lodging establishment, which typically requires expensive upgrades to an existing building, including installation of a sprinkler system.
The controversy on campus was touched off this week, three months after the issue was first raised at a community meeting on campus, when the Daily Northwestern Tuesday published a story asserting that the city planned to start evicting students from apartments that exceeded the occupancy rules starting in July.
The story also said students commonly believe the ordinance had initially been adopted as a "brothel law" designed to bar prostitution operations from the community -- a theory that came as news to many long-time residents.
An estimated 500 students turned out on campus Tuesday evening at a meeting to protest the reported crackdown.
The city, in the news release this evening, said it has regularly enforced the rules through the years, but at the campus meeting last night, many students said they currently were living in apartments that appear to violate the occupancy limit.
In addition, the city staff in its news release said it has received an increasing number of complaints from residents about such violations -- with 173 reported last year in the blocks east of Ridge Avenue between Noyes and Emerson Streets, which have a large student population.
In a previous news release, issued in November, city officials had said that landlords cited for violations recently would be given until this summer to reduce occupancy to legal levels -- which may have triggered the concern on campus about the possibility of an approaching crackdown.
A number of landlords who bought properties in the area in recent years at then high market prices, based on an assumption that they could rent to four students per unit, have said that reducing occupancy to three will force them into foreclosure now that housing prices have fallen.
City officials say many of the buildings violating the residency limits have been illegally converted to have more bedrooms. They were not immediately available for comment to learn whether any significant number legal rental units with four or more bedrooms exist in the city.
The officials in the news release said the city does not directly order tenants to move, except in the case of egregious life-safety violations, but noted that a landlord, under pressure from the city to end housing code violations, might ultimately terminate a lease.
Update 10:15 p.m.: The university's dean of students, Burgwell Howard, in an e-mail message to students this evening, praised the city's announcement that it doesn't plan to step up enforcement of the ordinance, and noted that the announcement came after university administrators met with city officials about the situation.
Howard added that the school "will oppose any efforts that target our students selectively using this ordinance."
He said the university recognizes the concerns of neighbors about noise, trash and unruly behavior and said NU will continue to address those issues.