Devon Reid.

Members of Evanston’s Housing Subcommittee split Tuesday night on whether the city should try to define “family” in its zoning code.

Ald. Devon Reid (8th) said the city shouldn’t be in the business of defining families and instead should set clear rules on how many people can occupy a certain amount of space — without specifying their relationship.

The city’s housing code already includes such square-footage based limits that are based on national housing code standards.

Clare Kelly.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st), who chairs the subcommittee, disagreed, citing a report from an attorney who supports her view that failing to define family would bar the city from placing restrictions on group homes for persons with disabilities.

That’s a legal stance that Reid says the city’s own attorney’s don’t support.

The city’s zoning code currently offers multiple definitions of “family” and specifies that no more than three unrelated people — who don’t meet the definition of a family — can share a dwelling unit.

Affordable housing groups say the rule creates a housing shortage that inflates rental costs in the city.

But some homeowners near the Northwestern University campus see the rule as a way to discourage student rentals in their neighborhood.

Despite the signs of a split among its members on the issue, the subcommittee never formally got around to discussing the families issue that was on its agenda for Tuesday night.

Kelly let public comment from eight people at the start of the meeting become a dialogue that lasted for a full hour, despite pleas from Reid and Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) to move on to the subcommittee’s agenda items.

Then, after a discussion of the rental registrations and inspections agenda item, Kelly adjourned the meeting at 6:35 p.m., before the scheduled discussion of families and the three-unrelated rule could begin, saying she had to leave to attend another meeting.

The discussion of rental registrations and inspections ended up covering familiar ground — that the city still lacks adequate database software to establish a tiered system of inspections under which problem properties would be inspected more frequently.

The existing system, staff said, also makes it difficult to keep data about rental properties current or to ensure that all landlords are paying city-mandated registration fees.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. I lived in a college town where there were no restrictions on unrelated people sharing housing.

    Here’s what happened. A one bedroom apartment that previously would’ve been rented by 1-2 people who worked in the community could now be occupied by 3-4 college students.

    When 3-4 kids are chipping in on the rent, they can afford a higher price than 1-2 people could. And yeah, lots of these kids had their rich parents’ money.

    The result was housing that was overflowing with students– including illegal rooming houses, so you’d have a three bedroom house, split into five bedrooms with up to ten students chipping in to rent it from a landlord who didn’t care. (And the street parking became a nightmare).

    Bottom line? Nobody who worked in the town could afford to live there. They couldn’t out-compete a group of students chipping in on rent and landlords raised the rents to whatever big groups of students could afford.

    Relaxing the laws against unrelated people living in a residence didn’t make housing more affordable for local workers and families. It did the opposite. And made landlords filthy rich.

    Before Evanston makes a move to allow unrelated people to occupy one residence, they first need a firm commitment from Northwestern to BUILD HOUSING FOR THEIR STUDENTS. At least a certain percentage of students should be housed in purpose-built dorms. And perhaps address/enrollment database should confirm that students aren’t over-occupying a single residence.

    I’ve lived in this situation. Couldn’t afford a one-bedroom where I worked despite having two decent salaries. But the 4-5 college kids chipping in? They could definitely afford it.

    1. Hi Anne,
      It would be helpful to know what college town you’re talking about … what was the size of the student population compared to the town’s population … and what was the size of the rental housing market in the community to see how your experience matches with the situation in Evanston.
      — Bill

  2. Wouldn’t a restriction on how many people per square foot could occupy a unit address a concern that “4 or 5” students would share a one bedroom unit?
    Also, I can’t wait for the debate about where NU should build more student housing. Curious to see how many neighborhoods raise their proverbial hands for that opportunity.
    I, too, am curious about the college and town from where Anne draws her instruction.

    1. Great suggestion to regulate by number of occupants per square foot. I think this is the only way to go. And for concerns over any big houses, I will say that we are protected by the city’s noise level regulations.

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