The Zoning Committee of Evanston’s Plan Commission again debated but took no action Wednesday evening on a staff proposal to eliminate the city’s ban on more than three unrelated people occupying a dwelling unit.

The long-standing ban in the city’s zoning code has been attacked as a barrier to affordable housing and as discrimination targeted at college students.

But some residents living close to the university see it as a bulwark against having more owner-occupied single-family homes on their blocks converted to rentals owned by absentee landlords.

The city’s housing regulations — based on the International Property Maintenance Code — provide a set of standards for how many people can occupy a dwelling unit based on the size of the unit. Those standards make no reference to familial relationships among the occupants.

Many apartments throughout the city are large enough to permit more than three occupants under the the property maintenance code. But under the zoning code, a familial relationship among the occupants is also required to make the occupancy legal.

The staff developed its proposal based on an aldermanic referral after years of off-and-on discussion about the issue.

In November the Plan Commission referred the proposal to the Zoning Committee. The committee discussed the issue at length at its February meeting but took no action.

Wednesday night Committee Chair Jeanne Lindwall continued to raise objections to the staff plan while member Peter Isaac favored the proposal saying the relationship of the people living in a dwelling unit shouldn’t matter to the city.

Member Kristine Westerberg said the city probably shouldn’t care about the the relationships, but neighbors may care.

“When investors snap up a building and rent a unit out to four, five or six unrelated people, that can change the character of a neighborhood over time,” Westerberg said.

John Leisinger of 2004 Orrington Ave. said “Nobody’s trying to stop affordable housing,” but the 1st Ward has a problem — and it’s students.

He claimed the existing rule creates at least some deterrent to investors buying up homes to turn them into rentals.

The city, he said, shouldn’t “cater to out-of-town landlords, students and the university that wants us to subsidize their students with our home values.”

But Bonnie Wilson, a member of Joining Forces for Affordable Housing, said the only appropriate way to proceed is to have an identical standard for people regardless of their relationships.

The committee is expected to take up the three-unrelated issue again at a meeting at 6 p.m. on April 28.

Whatever the committee eventually decides, the issue will then go back to the full Plan Commission before reaching the City Council for a final vote on any change.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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