Controversy over Evanston’s ordinance barring more than three unrelated people from living together has flared again on the Northwestern University campus.

The Daily Northwestern Monday reported complaints about what students consider intrusive inspections of their apartments and fears the city might force them out of their homes over violations of the ordinance.

That led city officials to insist that — barring serious uncorrected life-safety issues — no students would be forced from their homes during the school year.

Why, it’s the same story we heard last school year.

This annual dance has several players:

  • Non-student residents of neighborhoods near campus who, resentful of the noise students sometimes make and how their cars fill up on-street parking, call in what they believe are over-occupany violations to inspectors and push for aggressive enforcement.
  • Aldermen who know the non-student neighbors vote while most students don’t. They’ve shown no inclination to modify an ordinance that makes no allowance for the size of a dwelling unit in determining how many unrelated people can live in it and blatantly discriminates in favor of people who happen to be related to each other. But at the same time the aldermen don’t want the bad press of throwing students out onto the street.
  • City staffers who claim they routinely inspects all rental apartments across the city every other year and don’t single out the campus area for enforcement, although in budget discussions officials have conceded that they don’t actually have the staff to keep up with that inspection schedule.
  • Students who seek to reduce their living costs by doubling up and who may or may not be aware of the ordinance when they make their housing plans and sign a lease.
  • Landlords who have a hard time finding three or fewer tenants willing to pay enough for an apartment to cover their mortgage payments.

So, the dance, that takes a year to unfold.

The city inspects to molify the neighbors. The students get scared. The landlords promise to do better next year. The students stay on. Summer eventually comes. The apartments turn over to new groups of students who are just as likely to violate the ordinance as the old groups were.

Some fresh thinking is needed to break out of the dance routine.

Since complaints about parking are a prime concern of the neighbors, perhaps “car-free” students should qualify for a waiver. That would let the city win extra points for being environmentally friendly.

While officials cite horror stories of students living in truly unsafe conditions, the count of horror stories never comes close to matching the number of reported violations of the three-unrelated rule.

The city needs to find a better way of addressing truly hazardous situations while giving students more flexibility in setting their own living arrangements.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. What a waste of staff time

    This law is a waste of taxpayer money.  The rule is impossible to enforce and really, if the property is being maintained, and the parking is all legal, what is the problem?

    They would be better spending the time enforcing the parking regulations (such as no parking on lawns in front yards), keeping landscaping reasonable, no litter and no loud noise/loud parties after midnight.

    Other than that, trying to waste time to discover who is living there, and if they are related is just silly.

    We have other issues that are so much more critical – crime prevention for example, that should command a larger proportion of the attention of the City and the University.

    1. Waste of taxpayer money

      Phrases like that get bandied about a ton nowadays, please lay out the actual costs that you see as being wasteful, and specifics including dollar figures would be nice. 

      And it's a law on the books. When I moved into an apartment for school, I knew the housing code. These are smart people attending this university, instead of pretending like they possibly couldn't figure out why a room they rent should have the required safety measures and that these landlords are often just unwilling to change their registration from single units to a boarding house designation, we should hold them responsible for their actions.

      Students or not, they're just regular renters. They pay money to live in a space they do not own, and there are laws concerning how that works all over, and they should know better. Adult life is hard and full of rules that have consequences, no better time to start than college. 

      1. Also

        Before you think I'm telling some walked to school uphill both ways story, I'm 24. I just did college, and it was in Boston, and their laws are oftentimes more confusing than ours. So essentially, suck it up renters period, but specifically students, this is your first apartment in the world, and you're gonna get screwed if you don't pay attention. 

        1. That is the worst reasoning I’ve ever heard

          Just because something is worse somewhere else, doesn't mean we should try to make improvements. Although many of the students at NU come from wealthy families, not all do. We are putting undue financial hardship on these students/families by ensuring their rent, in an already expensive area, is even higher.

          This type of rule could keep middle class/less fortunate students from attending NU as the extra costs make it unaffordable. Evanston isn't only Northwestern. In other parts of town we have poor and immigrants.

          The best option for these people is to sometimes live with non-related people to make housing affordable in an expensive area. This is also good for taxpayers as they would not apply for public housing subsidies. This would also outlaw a live-in nanny, with children of her own, from living with the family she works for. This law makes Evanston a city that only the rich can afford to live in. 

  2. No need for City Pealing Paint inspectors

    In reading the article in the Daily Northwestern It appears the city is going beyond, the law and invading the privacy of the students.   The  building property standard inspectors perform a very marginal service and cost the tax payers a lot of money. 

    Is the city increasing these inspection to justify the positions?  Recently the city proposed a $25 tax on each rental unit, why?   It is clear to me the federal government is about to cut their funding for two of the inspector positions.

    So staff is now justifying the fee?

    How many of the cases are real over crowding?

    How many of the cases are real building code issues. given these inspectors are not qualified to do building code inspectors – they are pealing paint inspectors that enforce the property code.

    Given the city own buildings have numerous code issues this is all the more interesting.

    Why did the city not give out the complete list of items?

    This whole issue should disgust the taxpayers, why should we continue to pay for employees that provide little real value to us taxpayers?






    1. Pealing???

      If paint peals in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, should we wallpaper???

    2. How about a fair shake

      Is the City invading peoples privacy, maybe, perhaps. However I dont think we should discount the inspectors all together, saying they're not needed. I happen to call on the Property Standards Department on numerous occasions. They are always professional and polite and respond to my concerns immediatley. I feel their department adds to our City by cleaning up these junk properties. Apparently Ponzi the Pig does not care about property values and why should he; as of yet pigs do not own property in Evanston.

  3. Unequal enforcement of an old law?

    Is this a case of unequal enforcement of an arcane law? Of the 52 properties released by the City, 49 are in the area of the 5th Ward adjacent to campus, where landlords tend to rent to student tenants. Is this "special attention" happening city wide, or just to penalize the landlords who rent to students? By the way, it is interesting that the City did not release the exact code violations these properties are supposed to have. Are they on the list because the fence is falling, or because there is a serious safety issue? Or is it that you just don't like the tenants?


    While I'm on the soap box, what is so special about three people? If a house is safe, and has proper kitchen, toilet, and living spaces, why can't the number of tenants be connected to the number of legal bedrooms? Four bedrooms, four tenants. Five bedrooms, five tenants. The number of three is outdated and unnecessarily rigid, and is being used as a tool to appease folks who aren't pleased that the dynamic of their neighborhood has changed, and are 'squeaking' to their alderman.


    Good laws should apply to everyone. Bad laws should be modified or repealed!

  4. Three unrelated rule needed in Evanston

    It seems that the editorial writer is the best friend that absentee landlords who soak thousands of dollars a month out of rental properties ever had.

    Why should anyone feel sorry for the landlord who can simply apply for a rooming house license if he wants to have more than three unrelated people in the house?

    The reality is that many of these absentee landlords want to pack as many students into their buildings as possible.  More often than not, the large amounts of rents received are not reinvested into the properties.

    In the 1970's there were rooming houses up and down Maple Avenue in Evanston.  These were decrepit structures neglected by the owners.

    The City's promotion of owner-occupied housing has resulted in Maple Avenue becoming a better street with most properties well-maintained and beautifully landscaped.

    Most of the absentee landlord properties are conspicuous for their unkempt lawns and decaying facades.  Moreover, when you pack ten students into a property, it may result in as many as ten cars being forced into the streets because there is insufficient parking available on-site.

    The City's three unrelated residents rule creates protection for the many single-family homeowners who still live in the neighborhood west of campus.

    When an absentee landlord doesn't take care of his property, it decreases the value of the neighboring properties. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of empty beer cups on a lawn after a night of partying in the neighborhood west of the University.

    Northwestern, by not allowing drinking on campus, has promoted students holding large parties in the Evanston neighborhoods.  If this is what the editorial writer wants, he is dead wrong.  The three unrelated rule is common in many university communities.

    The City Council MUST continue to protect the neighbors who live west of the University.  To say the three unrelated rule is archaic is absurd.

    1. Three unrelated rule needed in Evanston – Friendly ghost version

      To the Friendly Ghost,

      I have been a rental property owner in SE Evanston for 23 years. I have NEVER soaked, or reaped for that matter, "thousands of dollars a month"…  I wish!

      I get your point about "absentee landlords"… but most of us (I prefer rental property owners) are here and are your neighbors, taxpayers and imagine this, we are also concerned about crowding (IMHO, the three unrelated rule is really silly!), unkempt lawns, noise issues, partying, crime and etc.

      The rules as they currently exist allow for vigorous enforcement – if that were to be done… there would be no debate or wasting anymore time on this (non) issue.

      I am an owner/operator who lives on the same block as my rentals and I care enough to over maintain my huge investments here… to the benefit of all of my neighbors.  I also strive to set an example for those properties on my block that could use a little influence.

      Over the last few years, the taxes, the extra fees for leaf bags, sewer improvements and the like barely yield positive cash flow.  Because of the current economic situation, renters are very sensitive to even modest increases (3%) while my costs (property taxes, maintenance, insurance) have gone up in double digits (22%) over the same period! If you think I am laughing all the way to the bank, you are dreadfully mistaken!

      Respectfully submitted Brian Becharas

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