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Editorial: City should reform occupancy rules

Evanston’s ordinance limiting to three the number of unrelated persons who may occupy a dwelling unit doesn’t make sense.

The ordinance gives no consideration to the size of the unit. It makes a large structure that could easily house four or more people in comfort and safety just as illegal as a tiny one too small for two.

Evanston’s ordinance limiting to three the number of unrelated persons who may occupy a dwelling unit doesn’t make sense.

The ordinance gives no consideration to the size of the unit. It makes a large structure that could easily house four or more people in comfort and safety just as illegal as a tiny one too small for two.

And it unfairly discriminates against non-family households. Ten people might live in a space that would be illegal for four as long as those ten people are related by blood or marriage.

The ordinance appears to have been intended to create a means by which fraternities, sororities and rooming houses could be barred from the community by requiring them to obtain a special use permit the city could choose to deny.

But by setting the number that triggers the regulation so low, and by giving no consideration to the nature of the legal relationship between the property’s owner and its residents or the size or configuration of the dwelling, the ordinance turns what recent reports suggest are a huge number of Northwestern students and perhaps hundreds of landlords into lawbreakers.

We aren’t sure how many off-campus apartments could safely house four or five students under a reasonable interpretation of uniformly applied health and safety codes.

But we are convinced that the answer is not zero — the number the city’s zoning rule now dictates.

Residents who chose to buy homes in a neighborhood filled with rental apartments adjacent to a university campus should expect the city to enforce ordinances against excessive noise and unruly behavior.

But it’s irrational to assume that an apartment occupied by three students will be quiet, while one occupied by four will instantly be transformed into Animal House.

And the residents shouldn’t be able to use the cudgel of an unfair occupany rule to intimidate their student neighbors by threatening to report them for violating it.

The city’s scattershot enforcement of the ordinance only makes the situation worse.

A complaint-driven system to enforce a widely violated, hard-to-justify law that many in the community have a strong economic incentive to evade is a sure recipe for capricious enforcement and widespread disrespect for the law.

It reminds us of another idea once popular in Evanston — Prohibition.

Surely we should have learned our lesson from that and should now be able to craft a more nuanced, sensible regulatory scheme. 

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