Although they conceded they had only anecdotes about how often it happens, members of Evanston’s Equity and Empowerment Commission moved forward with plans Thursday to draft an ordinance to ban conversion of two- and three-flat apartment buildings to single family homes.

They acted after listening to Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), a member of the Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus, describe a similar ordinance adopted there to discourage gentrification in certain city neighborhoods, including the Pilsen neighborhood he represents on the city’s lower west side.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez.

Sigcho-Lopez, who spoke over Zoom for more than a half hour before pausing to take questions or comments, described his work opposing development in the area starting long before he was elected to the City Council in 2019.

He said homeowners in his neighborhoods were being harassed by real estate developers who wanted to buy their properties. Months after his election, the City Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting developers from contacting homeowners for six months after they’ve indicated they’re not interested in selling.

“Realtors are looking at our communities as gold mines,” Sigcho-Lopez said, “Housing is a human right.”

Sigcho-Lopez said he wants to lift the statewide ban on rent control because “now we’re not even able to give incentives for owners who keep rent affordable.”

And he called for requiring landlords to pay tenants compensation when their leases are not renewed.

Ald. Devon Reid (8th), a member of the commission, said he’s seeking a “just cause eviction ordinance” for Evanston that would increase the notice required for non-renewal of leases from the current 30 days to 60 or 90 days and require landlords to provide relocation assistance.

Asked by Commissioner Jane Grover what data he had to show the effectiveness of the deconversion ban and restrictions on teardowns, Sigcho-Lopez said there “was relatively little citywide data” but that it had been effective in “a handful of cases in his own community.”

Karla Thomas.

The only Evanston example of a two-flat deconversion was provided by Commission Chair Karla Thomas.

“I live in a home that I deconverted from a two-flat to a single family home,” Thomas said, “I can’t go back in time to undo that.”

Evanston Now has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city for data on how many deconversions have occurred in the city in recent years.

Thomas also said the committee would work on an update to the city’s teardown ordinance, which now imposes a tax of $15,000 for demolishing a single family home.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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18 Comments

  1. Unbelievable that Karla Thomas–who wants to impose these restrictions on everyone else–claims she can’t “undo” the conversion.

    She absolutely can do that. Their neighborhood is still an R3. Let’s see these people walk-the-walk before restricting the activities of everyone else.

    It should also be noted that Thomas is a realtor, so ethically she should probably not vote or propose things that could pose a conflict of interest.

    https://www.zillow.com/profile/KarlaUrb2burb/

    1. Stephan Randerson – You should watch the recording of the meeting- Maybe if reporting was IN context you would get that I said that I can’t “go back in time and undo that” but we are looking at ways the city can allow for and incentive those who have done it to reverse it or add another unit in some way and let folks with single-family units add basement units. Also, most Realtors would DISAGREE with me on this issue… this flies in the face of what is good for the real estate industry but serves those in the community who need affordable and moderately priced housing.

      1. Good grief, Karla. An “incentive” is voluntary–like giving a tax break or something for people to turn a single family property into a multi-family property.

        The commission is considering recommending an ordinance prohibiting people from doing what they want with their property. That’s not an incentive. It’s an order.

        The fact that you want to close the door behind you and prohibit people from doing something that you personally benefited from is the height of hypocrisy.

  2. I know this happens a lot in the city but I don’t know if I’ve seen a unit de-conversion here in Evanston. Maybe there have been some over on the south side of town, near Howard? I can’t say I’ve seen any here in Evanston. I’m not sure what problem this solves. Same for the $15k demolition fee. If you’re going to do a knock-down and rebuild, $15k is a drop in the bucket and probably less than 5% of the overall cost.

  3. If the real-world impact of prohibiting deconversion would be to actually improve housing prospects for some, I would support; but I suspect that the actual result would be close to zero — that is zero good and zero bad. Looks good but accomplishes nothing . Surely we can do better.

  4. Curiosity—
    I once lived in an older home in south Evanston that was previously converted from a single family home into a two flat and later converted back into a single family home. I suspect a few such homes may still exist in Evanston. Would this proposed ordinance exempt such properties or not?

    1. My entire block and most of the block behind me that shares my alley are all single family homes converted, probably in the 30’s to the 50’s, to have a rental in part of the home, it was done out of financial neccessity… too controlling to force people to keep a home as a 2 flat, if it is one now, when it was built as a single family..Most of these homes are still listed as 2 flats to help confuse this issue even more when it is time to purchase.

  5. Shame on Karla Thomas, for sure. Such a double standard! Certainly she can decommission her single family home back into a 2-flat. She should know that; she’s a Realtor. Her license should be revoked for such misinformation.

    And enough is way more than enough already w/ Devon Reid. Now he’s proposing that when landlords do not renew the lease, they must provide relocation assistance? Seriously?! Evanston is not a condo board; it is a city. He’d have been ousted from a condo board by now.

  6. Sorry Sigcho-Lopez but housing is NOT a human right. It is a scarce commodity that can be owned giving the owner the ability to control its consumption.

  7. There have been a number of homes in the Northwestern University neighborhood that have been bought and converted into housing for students. Would this ordinance prevent these homes from being used as single family homes in the future?

  8. I feel that there is already too much government overreach. Enough already! I own a 2 flat and if I want to make it into a single family home I should be able to do that. I should be able to cut down a tree without paying a huge fee. Stop allowing all these ridiculously expensive rentals to be built, try building and encouraging properties that are affordable.

  9. Deconversion is a fantastic, low-cost tool for the city to promote affordable housing. It is incontrovertible that two and three flat units are at high risk for conversion as property values rise, and it’s already happening in Chicago and likely here. Evanston needs every tool in the toolbox to keep housing affordable; let’s do this now before we’re at risk for shutting the barn door after the horses have already started to leave. PS to Allen Jacque, housing IS a human right (check out article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other sources). Evanston should do whatever it can to help advance that right in whatever ways possible. It’s one of the reasons I live here.

  10. Two comments.
    1. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the so-called “takings clause,” requires just compensation whenever government takes a property by force or lessens its value through mandates. If someone wants to “de-convert” their property and is banned from doing so, they must be compensated monetarily.
    2. Rent control is one of the most idiotic laws in America. Setting a price is like smashing a thermometer. You don’t change the underlying reality, just the signal offering info about what a property is worth. Landlords who are forced to keep rents down can turn properties into slums to avoid going broke. Rent control leads to a severe shortage of housing because there’s little incentive to produce more if you can’t rent at the market rate. I hope the Evanston council is smart enough not to listen to emotional, logic-deprived arguements.

  11. Maybe the City should allow developers to build high rises (especially near transit stops) instead of preventing 2-flat owners from turning their buildings into single family homes.

    Thanks Karla “do as I say but not as I do” Thomas. Hypocrisy at its finest. Make money on your own deconversion, and then try to prevent anyone else from doing the same.

    Karla and her cronies spend a ton of time on the D65 Parents and Guardians Facebook page shutting down and shaming people. They stifle discussion by calling everyone a racist who dares to disagree with them. I’m tired of it, and I hope a lot of other people in this community are tired of it as well.

  12. For Tom Hayden: Evanston includes the south end of town and there have been deconversions there as well as in the north end of town.

    In the current real estate market, deconversion is the term used to describe the act of a developer convincing the legal percentage of owners in a condominium building to sell their units. If there is an agreement, all the building’s owners must sell, and the buiding is deconverted to a rental building. The percentage now required in Chicago is 85%.

    1. Condominium deconversions are a thing — but at the Equity and Empowerment Commission meeting speakers were using the “deconversion” term to describe something different — the conversion of a two- or three-flat rental building into a single family home.

  13. My family has owned a 2-flat in Evanston for 55 years. It’s a slap in the face to tell us we could never convert our property. The only reason we were able to raise our family here is because we are a multi-generational building. Whether our actual unit would be considered ‘affordable housing’ or not, I don’t think anyone wants to raise a family long-term with 1000 sq ft, 2 tiny bedrooms, and 1 bathroom. None of the people who rent similar units in my area stay for very long. The only people that stay are sharing the whole building like us. These 2-flat apartments are very small and if you want families to live here, they need options and not arbitrary rules.

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