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Should city regulate ‘families’ or ‘households’?

City Council tonight will debate one plan to liberalize zoning rules, another one that would make them more restrictive.

Council will debate tonight how many different forms a household may legally take.

Affordable housing advocates will clash with student-fearing near-campus homeowners tonight when the Evanston City Council takes up two zoning proposals that head in dramatically different directions.

One proposal would drop the city’s long-standing efforts to define “family” in the zoning code and eliminate the restriction on more than three unrelated persons occupying a dwelling unit.

Instead the city would set occupancy limits based on square footage provisions already contained in its housing code.

The other proposal would impose a six-month moratorium on construction of internal and attached accessory dwelling units in non-owner occupied properties. That would reverse more permissive ADU regulations adopted just last year.

Vocal homeowners living near the Northwestern University campus who don’t want students living next door have opposed dropping the “family” definition and favor the ADU moratorium.

They fear permitting non-owner-occupied ADUs will encourage conversion of owner-occupied single family homes to absentee-landlord-owned student rentals.

And despite the failure of the ban on more than three unrelated persons sharing an apartment to eliminate complaints about noisy student parties, they favor keeping that restriction.

By contrast, affordable housing advocates say the three-unrelated rule jacks up the cost of housing in the city.

And they believe banning ADUs in non-owner-occupied buildings will discourage creation of additional affordable housing options, by making ADU financing more challenging, even for owners who intend to continue to live on site.

Another Big Ten college town, Ann Arbor, Michigan, earlier this year eliminated an owner-occupancy restriction from its ADU ordinance.

A report in 2018, two years after Ann Arbor adopted the ADU ordinance amended this year, said the restrictions had resulted in no new ADUs being constructed in the city. A report this summer said nearly two dozen ADUs are now under construction in Ann Arbor, which has a population of about 121,000.

Evanston’s Plan Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the ADU moratorium and split 3-3 on the plan to stop trying to define family in the zoning code.

City staff is proposing an implementation plan if the definition of “family” is eliminated from the zoning code that would call for increased inspections of rental properties, require landlords to provide floor plans to help set occupancy limits and require posting of a maximum occupancy sign in rental units.

The staff anticipates that the change to less restrictive occupancy limits will make student tenants more willing to report safety and other code violations, because they won’t have to fear running afoul of the current occupancy rules.

The city staff proposal also anticipates more funding for housing inspectors in next year’s city budget.

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