Evanston aldermen Tuesday rejected on a 5-4 vote a request from some residents of the 1900 block of Orrington Avenue to downzone a portion of the block from R4a to R1.

The residents claimed the change was needed to prevent homes on the street from being sold to absentee landlords who would rent to large numbers of students who in turn would disrupt the tranquility of the block.

But aldermen who opposed the change said there was no assurance that it would achieve their goal.

This zoning change won’t solve the bad habits and property standards issues, said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward.

She also said she was inclined to oppose any expansion of R1 zoning because the large lot size required in the zone and the prohibition of multi-family housing makes it difficult for lower-income residents to live in such areas and contributes to racial disparities in the city.

But Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who proposed the change at the neighbors’ request, said it would would help preserve the residential character of the block. “Once investors and absentee landlords are present, it makes it hard to get families to buy in the neighborhood,” Fiske said.

Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, claimed during the discussion that Northwestern University takes the position that they can’t control student behavior off campus.

However, NU’s executive director of neighborhood and community relations, Dave Davis, told residents at a 5th Ward meeting Sept. 17 that the school was investigating 11 reports of off-campus incidents that violate pandemic-induced social distancing and other rules and that the investigations had already led to a couple of interim suspensions of students.

Some property owners on the block also opposed the zoning change in comments at the Council meeting.

In addition to Fiske, those voting in favor of the rezoning were Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

Earlier in the evening, at the Planning and Development Committee meeting, aldermen discussed the long-standing city ordinance that limits dwelling units to house no more than three unrelated individuals.

The so-called “three-unrelated” rule was initially designed to limit student rentals, but has proven extremely difficult to effectively enforce.

In addition, it has put the city in the business of defining what a family is for purposes of excluding families from the rule’s impact.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said an analysis of the occupancy of dwelling units should be based on the configuration of the unit and the total number of people residing in it, not on their family relationship.

He said the city needs better tools for addressing over-occupancy issues.

The committee voted to refer the issue to the Plan Commission for study, with Alderman Revelle suggesting the commission should have a pretty broad discussion around issues like home sharing and different types of housing that would address a lot of affordability issues.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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