Despite complaints from homeowners near Northwestern University, Evanston’s Plan Commission edged Wednesday night toward recommending repeal of housing occupancy limits in the city’s zoning code.

The proposal would eliminate efforts to define “family” in the zoning code and repeal a ban on more than three unrelated individuals living in a dwelling unit.

Proponents see the rule as a barrier to affordable housing across the city. Defenders claim it is the only barrier to having all homes near the university turned into student housing.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) called the increase in student housing near campus “an extreme problem” driven by absentee landlords and claimed the change would make housing even more expensive.

Kelly also called for a rollback of recent zoning changes permitting accessory dwelling units attached to homes, saying they should only be allowed in owner-occupied buildings.

But Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless said the current rules are based on the troubling assumption that only groups of people who have an “acceptable” relationship with each other are appropriate households.

She said it also assumes that students are not legitimate residents of a neighborhood and that renters aren’t either.

Karen Nelson.

Karen Nelson, who lives close to the campus at 2011 Orrington Ave., said changing the rules would have an adverse impact on the neighborhood and that many other college towns have restrictions on unrelated adults living together that are similar to the rule in Evanston.

But Larry Donoghue, chair of the city’s Housing and Homelessness Commission, said there’s been lots of discussion about the proposal, which has been on the Plan Commission’s plate since last fall, and “it’s really time to vote.”

Larry Donoghue.

Donoghue said he favored an alternative proposed by staff that would eliminate references to household size in the zoning code and instead enforce occupancy limits based on rules in the property standards code.

Those rules specify the amount of square footage required for each resident of a dwelling unit, but make no distinctions based on the family relationships of the parties.

The staff proposal also calls for adding to the city’s inspection staff to be able to better enforce the resulting occupancy limits.

Matt Rodgers.

Plan Commissioner Matt Rodgers said he didn’t think the proposed change would make housing more affordable close to the university — because it’s not affordable there now. “I don’t see affordable housing being in a $1.5 million home near campus,” Rodgers said.

But he said the change would make some housing more affordable in other parts of the city.

He also suggested that if homeowners close to campus don’t want to see properties converted to student housing they should work together with their neighbors and agree not to sell, adding, “developers can only buy what people are willing to sell.”

The commissioners voted 4-1 to ask staff to prepared a more detailed proposal for repealing the three unrelated rule, including addressing various possible impacts of the change.

Commission Chair Jeanne Lindwall, who lives near campus at 625 Library Place, cast the only no vote.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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