Evanston aldermen Monday shot down a staff proposal to simplify the approval process for owners seeking to expand homes on lots that don’t meet current setback requirements — arguing the change would reduce affordable housing in town.

The council, shorthanded with three members absent, voted 4-2 to reject the staff proposal.

According to city staff there have been four such requests in the past two years — each of which was ultimately approved unanimously by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

  • 825 Asbury Ave. — Approved May 5, 2015.
  • 2307 Grey Ave. — Approved April 21, 2015.
  • 2335 Hartrey Ave. — Approved July 2, 2013.
  • 1929 Noyes St. — Approved May 21, 2013.

Community Development Director Mark Muenzer said under the proposed change the variations could be approved by city staff after written notice to property owners within 250 feet. The fee would be $250 and the process would take four to six weeks to complete.

A drawing of the planned second story addition at 825 Asbury Ave.

The existing rules require notice to property owners within 500 feet of the site, a sign posted on the site, a notice published in a local newspaper, a recommendation from the city’s Design and Project Review Committee and a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals. The fee is $350 and the process, Muenzer says, takes six to eight weeks to complete.

The issue involves homes that were built before the city adopted its current rules in the 1990s that require structures to be set back certain distances from each lot line.

As built they’re considered legal nonconforming uses — but if an owner want to add a second story to the home, a variation is required to allow the second story to have the same footprint as the first floor.

Muenzer said requiring a second story addition to be set back beyond the first floor walls is costly from an engineering standpoint and often results in a design that’s not considered aesthetically pleasing.

But Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he “doesn’t want to make it too easy.” Each such addition, Wilson added, makes housing in the city less affordable.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said the additions “can have a permanent impact on neighbors” and that she’s concerned about the impact on smaller houses the city is trying to maintain as affordable.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she didn’t see a direct connection between the change and affordable housing. “This is existing owners trying to expand their home to be able to stay in Evanston,” Grover said

But Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said Evanston needs to keep homes that cost less, and adding a second floor would make the home “forever cost more.”

She suggested people who own such homes and want to expand them should try to find another house in Evanston that would meet their needs instead.

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, said he didn’t see a need to hold up homeowners on this. “We shouldn’t put the burden of affordable housing on individual homeowners,” Miller added.

Grover and Miller voted for the proposal, which had won unanimous support from the Plan Commission, while Fiske and Wilson were joined by Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, in voting against it.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. There is no reason the city

    There is no reason the city should get involved unless great harm would come from somebody's house improvement and enforcing the building code. Other than that, only the neighbors in proximity of the house should have a say.

    Wilson and Tisdahl come accross as oppressive government officials who want to control private property that may meet their needs in the future. When they opened their "Pieholes", they said a couple of things. They control the property you own. Your neighborhood may or maynot be allowed to improve home values, based on our whims.

    What ever happened to the saying, " A man's home is his castle.". Not if the Evanston City Council has anything to say about it.

    1. Their next house–
      The article said:
      “But Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said Evanston needs to keep homes that cost less, and adding a second floor would make the home “forever cost more.”
      She suggested people who own such homes and want to expand them should try to find another house in Evanston that would meet their needs instead.”
      Maybe they will not buy a larger house in Evanston, but move to Wilmette or somewhere else instead.
      People are fed-up with the crazy policies of the Council, taxes, crime, and thus use the desire for a larger house as a reason to move out of Evanston.

      1. Affordable Housing Doesn’t Exist in Cook County
        Why doesn’t affordable housing exist in Cook County? Because of our taxes! My home is an 800 square foot 2BR/1Ba on a slab and my taxes are $5K! My family wasn’t always living as comfortably as we do today. We are adults from seriously poor families and, speaking from my own experience, there is no way that people considered to be in the “eligible for affordable housing” bracket can afford a house in Cook County… especially Evanston where our taxes are very high per square foot. Liz can hope to keep my house affordable by limiting my ability to expand it, but it’s current value is not going to make it any more affordable to people who make less than $100K annually. My current market value without an addition, plus the ridiculous amount of taxes assigned to my cottage are what make it unaffordable. Affordable housing is a failure of our federal government and it simply cannot be addressed at the local level.

    2. Size only one factor in affordability

      Any real estate professional can tell you that the size of, and finishes in, a home are not the only thing that determines price. Look at any real estate portal and you can find grand homes in cities which are no longer desirable to live in for a small fraction of what you will pay in Evanston. Even within Evanston, you see a wide disparity in the cost of similar sized homes in different parts of the city. More often than not you’re paying for location. $500k teardown in north Evanston or Wilmette on a typical sized lot anyone?

  2. This is Just Plain Stupid

    How arrogant are the aldermen and mayor to deny a homeowner the opportunity, as well as the right, to expand their property on their lot. How dare they expect any homeowner in Evanston to share the burden of adequate affordable housing with the city? How down right uppity is Mayor Tisdahl's suggestion that people who own such homes and want to expand them should try to find another house in Evanston that would meet their needs instead. Really? People who currently live in what you consider affordable housing should purchase unaffordable housing rather than upgrade the affordable housing they currently reside.

    1. Another idea
      Perhaps the city could mandate that every home improvement be countered with a something to decrease the longterm value of the property? Want to add an extra bedroom? You would also have to add ugly neon purple siding and a non-functioning above ground pool. Want a second story? Than you need to add two junker cars without wheels to your front yard. This way the city can ensure that any improvement will be fully offset, so that no increase in property value could happen!

    2. Who is realy stupid?

      I still am debating this with myself.  Which party is more stupid, the city council members who would support this idea, or the voters who elected them (and will probably reelect them)?  Can anyone help me on this one?

      1. A little more on it

        Unfortunately, brief articles can't cover all of the information.  There is an existing process for doing this kind of work and that’s not going to change.  This was a proposal involving properties that would be illegal to build now under the existing code.  The homeowners of such properties can apply for variances and explain why they want to do the work.  The 4 applicants who wanted to do that kind of work in the past 2 years were approved.  Why change the process to make it easy for some developer to come in, buy up properties and get to build on to them without going through the approval process?  Making the change would have forced neighbors with concerns to appeal approvals by the City staff if they wanted to be heard. Those are not intended consequences, but those are the kinds of things that could potentially cut into the housing that is more affordable. I have been consistently saying that it is desirable for Evanston to have quality, affordable, market price housing, and that next door neighbors should not bear the cost. Contrary to some of the inferences that might appear from the article, rejecting the proposed change has nothing to do with subsidizing housing.  The existing process does allow people to stay in their homes and to make the changes or additions to suit their needs and the needs of their families.    

        1. Wilson,


          Then you are now saying that the reporting was not accurate or that you were misunderstood do to the language you used at the council meeting. I believe the combination of what you and the mayor said leads people to believe that the council wants to keep the small houses small and maintain the city's affordable housing for the future, thus putting the burden on the current home owner. The mayor's comment finally cemented this impression.


          1. Mr. Wilson, my reason “why” does not matter to you

            Mr. Wilson,

            Your response focuses on the procedure and how it won't change. But that is not what concerns many homeowners. We are looking at the substantive element of that process and how the City has apparently now added "affordability" of the home to subsequent buyers as the deciding factor in considering certain home improvements. 

            If I want to expand my home slightly (after it has not been updated in any way in more than 50 years) with an addition to be built completely on the existing footprint and within the height restrictions, I have to explain why. Those are your words above.  

            But according to your comments at the public meeting, improving my home would render it unaffordable to someone else, some future buyer.  Based on your comments at that public meeting, any "why" that I present, no matter how honest or reasonable, is irrelevant and the City disapproves of the improvements.

            How ridiculous.  And only the uppity Mayor's comments that I should buy another home in Evanston and move are more ridiculous.  To the out-of-touch Mayor, I should uproot my family and move away from our home and neighborhood just so the Mayor and the other like-minded Council members can feel good that my current out-of-date home will stay out-of-date but apparently affordable for someone else.

            When are you, the rest of the City Council and the Mayor going to truly worry about affordability and focus on keeping City-imposed real estate taxes and fees affordable?

            And have you ever heard of unconstitutional takings?  Denying individual homeowners the ability to improve their homes within the current footprint and within the height limits solely for the purpose of keeping housing affordable in the City is, in my opinion, an unconstitutional takings for which the City would need to compensate me.  So maybe the City will wind up paying for me to move some place else.  It would not be to another home in Evanston.

            Stand in the way of an otherwise allowable bump out of my home based solely on affordability to someone else?  Go ahead with that foolish approach but have the City checkbook ready.

        2. Affordable Housing Clarification

          Alderman Wilson — thank you for clarifying your intention.  With regard to the hot topic of affordable housing, as I said in an earlier comment before reading your clarification, the high taxes of Cook County within Evanston Township are what makes housing unaffordable for families.  Any actions taken at the local level are going to impact local residents unfairly.  This effort is a failure of our federal government and should be addressed at that level.  Evanston is trying to put a band-aid on a gaping wound in an effort to keep special interests happy.  Those special interests are over-reaching and the middle-class that exists in Evanston is feeling the pressure all too heavily.  I hope you and your fellow aldermen make more of a concerted effort to understand just how skewed local government actions have looked to us for the past few years.  Evanston residents could use a bit of attention from our aldermen, and by saying that I mean that we (all residents collectively) should be the priority instead of economic development and special interests.  Sometimes, all we really need is for you to show us the love. 

      2. As with many Council Proposals/Actions
        Do they actually think through things they say or just spout stream of consciousness ?
        Their argument here sounds like “we want equality in every way, so we will make everyone poorer until they reach the same level of poverty.”
        This is probably the dumbest proposal I recall by the Council but I’m sure someone will record a worse one in the past—or we can just wait a while and they will top this one.

  3. Most people who care…

    Most people who have legitimate questions and concerns actually give me a call to talk about it instead of letting their imaginations run away in their anonymous posts. We could spend endless hours correcting incorrect information or assumptions on social media, but I would rather spend my time talking with people who care enough to pick up the phone or to show up at a meeting.

    1. Who cares? I truly wonder

      I care.  It is my home that you and the Mayor so blithely refer to as "affordable housing" for someone else.  Shame on you and her.  You need to show some concern for residents who want to improve their property, their lives and their neighborhoods  If affordable housing is truly important to you and others, start requiring that it in all wards of the city.

      I have attended City Council meetings.  But I choose when and where to make my opinions known.  I should not be scolded for choosing to air my opinions here or anywhere else.

      Instead of confronting meritorious arguments with a thoughtful response, you hide behind baseless criticism of "anonymous posts" and castigating other for not calling you.  More labeling — letting our imaginations run wild?  Not much imagination is needed to read the words that you spoke in a public meeting about affordable housing being a consideration in these requests. 

      If the reporter or anyone posting here got it wrong, you have the opportunity to correct all of us.  Sorry that you chose to fold in the face of the addressing legitimate concerns but chose the path of labeling and avoiding them instead.  That tells me who truly cares.

    2. Wilson (not the soccer ball,

      Wilson (not the soccer ball, even though there is an eerie resemblance), please don't insult everybody because you and the mayor screwed up in a public meeting. Just go into executive sesson before you utter private feelings publically. It has been uncommon for you to do this type of mistake, on the other hand the mayor does this frequently.

      Remember, "A slip of a lip can skip a ship.",

    3. Thanks, Don

      Don – I would agree with what you are saying, you have explained your position.  I know you do talk to residents, including those of us who live in other wards. Also you have talked to me at council meetings.

      You have done a better job than most on the council, but I wish you would take a stronger position on issues, versus being a team player. That is when you believe in an issue you would debate it harder.

      I think you were rather weak on your support for the recycling center for recreation along with Peter and Brian.   Don't end up being  like the Mayor, who never saids any thing of value.


  4. Getting feedback

    Don Wilson, You are 100% wrong that most people who have “legitimate” questions and concerns would actually give you a call to talk about it or attend council meetings to express their legitimate concerns in the 2 or 3 minutes allotted to each speaker.

    Do not assume people do not care merely because they are unwilling or unable to phone you personally to discuss “legitimate” questions and concerns. Texting, emailing and yes posting has become the most convenient and standard way of gathering information and communicating concerns. Personally, I enjoy and look forward to the comments on this newsworthy site.

    This kind of forum, as does all social media, gives people an opportunity to share their opinions openly with other residents about issues affecting our community. Encourage rather than discourage public forums where we all can ask questions, get answers and express opposing views. Don’t be threatened by it. Welcome it even if those posting a comment prefer to remain anonymous.

    Concerns posted by an anonymous author are no less legitimate than concerns posted by someone who identifies themselves. Besides, private phone conversations would be just that, private and by definition would exclude rather than include others from the discussion.

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