Evanston aldermen Monday voted to schedule a review this spring of the city’s ordinance that restricts apartment units to occupancy by no more than three unrelated people.

During a discussion Monday of ways to increase housing affordability in the city, three Northwestern University students urged repeal of the rule.

They said that high rental costs for apartments near campus force many students to skirt the rules, which then leave them vulnerable to eviction if they complain about poor conditions in their unit.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, argued for repeal of the restriction.

There’s no reason for it as a protection against overcrowding, she argued, because the city housing code has separate rules that prescribe the amount of space required for each person in a dwelling unit.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward said he completely agreed with Rainey.

Don Wilson.

The reasons people cite for having the three-unrelated rule — crowding and noise, Wilson said, are already covered by the housing code and the city’s nuisance premises ordinance.

And, Wilson added, the existing law “provides a bad landlord with an opportunity to take advantage of somebody.”

Judy Fiske.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she opposes relaxing the three-unrelated rule. She argued instead for encouraging more rooming houses in the area — as long as those properties were owner-occupied.

She said there’s been “strong success in her ward with licensed rooming houses.”

They work, she said, because there’s an owner in the house. And she said they could appeal to seniors, students and “people who want to share their house to help with the taxes.”

A map of licensed rooming houses prepared by city staff indicates that only seven that aren’t either hotels, NU dorms or other institutional properties.

Of the seven, three are located in the 1st Ward, east of the CTA tracks and south of Foster Street. The other four are located in the 5th Ward.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th  Ward, said the conditions many students are living in now “are just not acceptable” and she urged a community discussion about rooming houses.

Rainey said, “If people are living in squalor, that’s a property standards issue and the city needs to be doing inspections and citing” the violations.

Rainey also argued that rooming house residents have no protection under the city’s landord-tenant ordinance. “You can be locked out if you don’t pay the rent on time, and can be thrown out if the rooming house owner doesn’t like you,” she said. 

Wilson said that if the three-unrelated rule were repealed, then people wouldn’t be threatened with eviction for reporting property standards violations.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, moved to refer the issue to the Planning and Development Committee and the aldermen agreed to schedule that discussion for April 9, after NU students return from spring break. They also agreed to hold a community meeting to discuss the issue before then.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Occupancy Limits

    The real solution to the problem continues to escape everyone involved due to misunderstanding and miscommunication.  It is and always has been about addressing illegal construction in over occupied buildings that have illegally been reconfigured by investors to maximize bedroom space. Rent is directly tied to the number of bedrooms and everyone knows this. Property Standards inspectors have limited knowledge of the building code. Additionally, instructing property standards inspectors to enforce the no more than three unrelated rule is equally challenging because property standards inspectors are not experts at enforcing the zoning code. The no more than three unrelated law is a zoning violation, not a property standards code violation. The City Manager stripped property standards away from the Community Development Department years ago during an ill advised reorganization. Thus, busy building and zoning enforcement staff have little incentive to collaborate with the health departments property standards inspectors. it makes it extremely difficult for staff to investigate, collaborate and solve complex neighborhood problems. The dance between property standards inspections, poor management decisions,  and landlords has and will be going on and on with no end in site.

    1. I agree with Guest

      I agree with Guest.  Our neighborhood has seen this first hand, where 2 flats and other buildings that housed several people were converted into units with more bedrooms, sometimes without permits.  We are innundated with an increased population and cars on the street.

  2. this has always been an unjust law, and it is time to end it
    I certainly understand that there are legitimate concerns regarding overcrowding and unsafe conditions in rental dwellings. That said, this ordinance is nowhere near a just, equitable or fair solution. As those cited in the article have said, this law actually fosters the degradation in quality of the very units it is designed to regulate, which does a great disservice to the tenants.

    This ordinance also does a great disservice to quality, law-abiding owners, and the landlord-tenant community as a whole. Can anyone give me a reasonable justification for why a spacious 4 or 5-bedroom residence may only legally house 3 people? I know that there are many who skirt the law, but there are many others (both renters and owners) who are risk-averse and thus begrudgingly abide by this ordinance. So this then does what? It causes the existing housing stock to be under-utilized, which does what? …it drives up rents (rent per tenant, not rent per apartment…that is actually depressed by this ordinance, which is a dis-incentive for owners to improve their units…so it’s bad for both parties).

    It’s time to stop this needless prohibition which, predictably, has created a black market that encourages law-breaking, secrecy and squalor. Alderman Rainey’s opposition, based on the assertion that we should increase the stock of rooming houses (and which employs a classic “either/or fallacy”, by the way), does not address the larger issue at-hand: that this is an unjust and ineffective ordinance. Guess what? we can repeal this unjust law AND increase the stock of rooming houses, both at the same time. Yes, we citizens of this enlightened democracy can break out of a simplistic thought process and accomplish two things at once if we wish.

    Yay, democracy!

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