Evanston city officials now say the Margarita Inn at 1566 Oak Ave. operated as a hotel in violation of the city’s zoning code for more than a quarter century.
In a letter this week to an attorney for Connections for the Homeless, which hopes to purchase the building for permanent use as a homeless shelter, Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz says a rooming house special use permit issued for the building in 1974 expired after the building was converted to hotel use in 1994.
Klotz notes that the city approved structural changes made to the building for the purpose of using it as a hotel but adds that zoning records during that time period “are nearly non-existent” and that “full zoning reviews were not done, which is highly unusual.”
A hotel is defined in the city’s zoning code as “a building in which lodging is offered with or without meals principally to transient guests and that provides a common entrance, lobby, halls and stairways.”
Hotels are not included in the list of permitted or special uses in the R6 zoning district that includes the Margarita site.
A rooming house use is allowed as a special use in the R6 zone, and Klotz’s letter says “current operations by Connections or the Homeless do comply with the zoning definition for a Rooming House.”
The zoning code defines a rooming house as “a building or portion thereof containing lodging rooms that accommodate more than three persons who are not members of the keeper’s family, and where lodging, excluding food service, is provided for compensation, whether direct or indirect.”
Neighbors objecting to the shelter have argued that it does not comply with the rooming house definition because Connections does provide food service to the shelter’s residents.
Connections for the Homeless has been using the Margarita Inn for the past two years as a shelter for those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Klotz says Connections needs to apply for a new rooming house special use permit which will require “a public hearing with the Land Use Commission and a final determination by the City Council.”
Some neighbors have said the Margarita has been a nuisance, with trouble caused by some residents.
However, Sue Loellebach, director of advocacy for Connections, says the facility has tried to be a good neighbor, and wants to “create a pact with the community to define expectations and procedures,” so Margarita Inn residents are respectful of those who live nearby, and problems such as littering or panhandling are dealt with.
Connections also says that many of the police runs to the Inn were self-generated by the police department, and not a result of resident misbehavior.
Nia Tavoularis, Connections’ development director, told Evanston Now that the problem of homelessness in Evanston is only going to get worse as housing prices increase, and as the community still recovers from COVID-19.
“It’s better for them to have a place to stay than to sleep outdoors,” Tavoularis says of those experiencing homelessness.
Tavoularis says at any given time in North Suburban Cook County, which includes Evanston, an average of 188 beds are needed so the homeless do not have to sleep outdoors.
And, Connections says, the waiting list for the Margarita is more than 50 people on a typical day.
Connections also says the average stay at the Inn is 10 months. The goal, Connections adds, is not permanent housing at the hotel, but a plan for self-sufficiency and moving out.
The Margarita Inn residents, Connections officials say, will not be evicted just because the special use permit is no longer valid, while the zoning process plays out.