Evanston’s Plan Commission deadlocked 3-3 Wednesday night on a plan to strip references to “family” from the city’s zoning code and eliminate a ban on more than three unrelated persons sharing a dwelling unit.

That means the proposal now goes to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee without a recommendation.

The staff proposal calls for relying instead on the existing housing code to set occupancy limits.

Single-family homeowners near Northwestern University have demanded that the city retain the zoning code’s three-unrelated limit as a way to deter the conversion of properties to student rentals that the neighbors claim lead to noise complaints and other nuisance problems.

But with many large homes in the area that could easily hold more than three persons per unit under the housing code, the three-unrelated rule has not deterred some landlords from taking their chances with the rule.

City officials say that’s left many students reluctant to report housing code safety violations for fear they’ll be displaced if an inspection found the property was over-occupied and they weren’t listed on the lease.

In addition, affordable housing advocates say the rule restricts people from sharing quarters across the city and thus tends to make housing less affordable.

Realtor Bonnie Wilson said she has several buyers now who would like to share a home with four to six unrelated women to reduce housing costs, but they are unable to legally buy a home in Evanston where they could do that.

The City Council referred what’s become a perennial issue to the Plan Commission last September, and after discussing it at five meetings of the full commission or its zoning committee since then, the matter finally came to a vote Wednesday night.

Before that happened, Daniel Lauber, an attorney and one-time Evanston resident invited to address the panel by Ald. Clare Kelly (1st), raised the specter that not defining “family” in the code would make it impossible to limit the creation of residential care homes for people with disabilities or substance abuse issues or their clustering in lower income neighborhoods where property acquisition costs are lower.

City officials didn’t immediately respond to Lauber’s claims, but the city currently bases its regulation of such uses on a requirement that they be licensed by the state and the city, rather than their compliance with a definition of family.

As of late 2018 the city had 15 such residential care homes, with a third of them in the 5th Ward.

Commissioner Matt Rodgers praised the staff for developing the reform proposal and for plans also in the works to step up enforcement of nuisance rules.

He suggested lack of enforcement of those regulations was the problem, rather than the number of people living in a dwelling unit. “I could be one person and be quite a nuisance to my neighbors,” Rodgers said, “and you could have 20 people living together who were not.”

But Commission Chair Jeanne Lindwall said eliminating the definition of family is a bad idea. “It’s premature for the Council to consider adopting this amendment before making other decisions” to increase funding for enforcement and require licensing of rental properties.

Commissioner George Halik responded, saying, “Its not our responsibility to work out those details” — that only the zoning issue is within the purview of the Plan Commission.

Commissioner John Hewko said he supported the text amendment but that he hoped the Council would also increase the budget for housing code enforcement and approve rental licensing.

Commissioner Kristine Westerberg questioned whether the change would actually be effective in increasing the supply of housing and how the city could track that.

Halik, Hewko and Rodgers voted for the proposal. Lindwall and Westerberg were joined by Commissioner Jennifer Draper in voting against it. Commissioner Brian Johnson had left the meeting before the vote was taken.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.