After a summer lull, the debate over how many people should be able to live together in Evanston is scheduled to resume next month.

The dispute involves a city ordinance — long on the books but never effectively enforced — that tries to limit to three the number of unrelated individuals who can share a dwelling unit as a “family.”

But the same ordinance imposes no limit on the number of people in a “family” dwelling unit if those people are related to each other.

Nearly three years ago, city officials started talking about stepped up enforcement of the ordinance as part of a plan to license rental properties — which led to cries of outrage from landlords and from Northwestern University students, who gave the ordinance the catchy label of the “brothel law.”

Opponents also argued that the ordinance effectively put hundreds of larger apartments in town off-limits to students.

Finally, at a Planning and Development Committee meeting last May, Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, proposed a reformed version of the rule.

Though discussion of the proposal was slated to take place over the summer, Wilson said he first wanted to meet with community members and students to discuss the issue before it went to the Zoning Committee of the Plan Commission for review.

After meeting with non-student residents, NU student government representatives and others, Wilson hopes to present a revised version of his original proposal at a Zoning Committee session Sept. 18.

(A staff memo prepared for a July meeting of the committee provides further background on the issue.)

But rather than reform the rule, Howard Handler, government affairs director for the North Shore Barrington Association of Realtors, said his organization would rather the city scrap it altogether.

Handler says the law negatively affects NU students and the city should “get out of the business of defining what a family is.”

When asked when the law was first established and what its purpose was supposed to be, Wilson said he didn’t know, but believed the rule was intended to prevent overcrowding.

Handler, on the other hand, believes the rationale behind the rule was to control where NU students could and could not live.

With soaring tuition prices and other costs, students often look for housing that allows for several roommates, thereby decreasing rent and other household costs.

Furthermore, Handler said enforcement of the rule is disproportionately targeted at NU off-campus housing.

But Wilson said he’s “not personally aware of it being enforced at all anywhere.” The reason for that, he said, is that the law, as it stands, doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor is it good policy.

Handler and his association argue that the city already has sufficient regulations – apart from the so-called brothel ordinance — that tackle the issue of overcrowding.

But these regulations, Wilson said, could possibly be circumvented, and that this law should be used to prevent such an instance.

Though he plans to propose a reformed version of the law, rather than eliminate it as Handler and NSBAR have suggested, Wilson said he’d prefer the new law to focus on building construction rather than the number of unrelated people living in a home.

After review by the Zoning Committee the proposal will be reviewed by the full Plan Commission and then sent to the City Council for a final vote.

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  1. Family

    I believe the definition that Evanston established was in direct response to the Hare Krishna Temple that once was located just north of downtown Evanston.  The building, the original YMCA was constantly the source of building violations and various complaints from neighbors, most probably because Evanston in the early 1970's was not quite ready for prime time. 

    There were various communes in the late sixties and, for those who might recall, the town was relatively "dry" thanks to the waning influence of the WCTU.  However, the flamingo-painted HK Temple was not what our city fathers and mothers wanted and they legislated the group out of their dwelling. The number of unrelated adults living in that building far exceeded 3 or 4 persons and, for those who ever saw the interior after they moved out, it was deplorable – more a reflection of how they chose to live than their relationship to one another.  The ordinance did move them out and, I believe, they moved into East Rogers Park instead. One suspects the effort was more about removing the Krishnas from wandering around downtown Evanston and approaching the good folks of the City. All of the anti-panhandling discussions probably go back to those days as well.

    1. Interesting perspective

      Nice write up on this and the probable root of the ordinance.

      It does seem like an unnecesary personal intrusion.

    2. Not quite

      I believe the ordinance was established because of NU students renting parts of houses which led to some safety concerns and code violations. Also repeated ongoing complaints by non-student neighbors about the behavior of the multiple students was part of the cause.

      1. It can be applied to lots of issues but…..

        I recall that the matter of unrelated persons came up when there was an application for a foster home to be set up in a home just north of downtown and near NU, i.e., somewhare between Sheridan and Ridge. Neighbors were against the idea of a 12-18 year old boys who were to be housed there and bused to Loyola Academy each day living on their block – no doubt because of fear for their younger children (I do not want to go further down that route as to other possible reasons…).  Pro testimony came from both the Chicago and St. Louis Archdiocese, local state reps, etc…(how ironinc in retrospect)

        Obviously, the Evanston restriction as to who was living in the home and that they were unrelated by blood, etc came up.   It was over-ridden by ZBA and then, quite probably by the Council.

        As to NU students, I agree that they too have rented homes but, when it comes to safety and codes, I suspect that as many homes that are occupied by families have violations as homes with students. Most never get inspected, particularly single-family homes and so, the concerns may now be about drinking, partying, etc. but …….

  2. A great step in the right direction…

    Thank you for covering this important issue.

    I would like to add though, that while the North Shore – Barrington Association of REALTORS (NSBAR) believes the City of Evanston should end the practice of defining what constitutes a family and maintain universal occupancy standards regardless of blood relations, we do believe Alderman Wilson's proposal is a great step in the right direction.  We applaud Alderman Wilson for being the leading proponent on the City Council to reform this antiquated, harmful law.  We look forward to contributing to the debate regarding this issue and the adoption of a better, more rational policy.

    Howard Handler
    Government Affairs Director
    North Shore – Barrington Association of REALTORS

  3. Housing code, limits on number of occupants

    In the mid-1970's, at a time when (some) City of Evanston offices were located in a former country club building on Lake Street, the applicable building/housing code provided me as I purchased an Evanston house was an Evanston code, not the BOCA code later adopted.

    The easily understood wording, if revealingly dated and politically insensitive, went something like this with reference to the number of persons.  If a dwelling unit (elsewhere defined) consisted of a certain threshold of habitable square  footage, the owner or tenant had the specific right to include among those occupying the unit in addition to family members, "two live-in servants or paying guests".  

  4. City Council- Stay out of our bedrooms.

    What is the point of creating an ordinance like this? 

    Wilson's proposal says "six unrelated individuals could share an apartment in multi-family zoning districts, but only if the city's zoning administrator certified that the unit had at least the same number of legal bedrooms as the proposed number of occupants."   Furthermore "Wilson's plan would forbid unrelated persons from sharing a bedroom in multi-family housing districts. And he noted that under the proposed rules related or unrelated persons could share bedrooms in single-family housing zones."

    This will effectively make it impossible for students to live off campus for reasonable rates.  I know because as an NU student, I shared a room within a home with a bunch of other girls within a multi-family housing district.  This was the only way I could afford to live off campus.  I might add that we were excellent neighbors, while two doors down, two unrelated males living in a two bedroom apartment , which would still be ok under this new change, had regular police visits for throwing crazy parties with noise violations at all hours of the night.

    As a junior or senior, most students live off campus and there is simply not enough student housing to keep everyone in a dorm.   If Evanston is going to start placing restrictions like this, then the city and NU are going to have issues housing everyone.  

    Furthermore, if people believe that restricting how many people live in one home is going to lower noise near their homes, they have not been to enough college parties

    Enforce noise violations and other violations that impede the neighbors rights.

    Stay out of people's bedrooms. 

  5. 3 unrelated law

    As a 48 year resident of the area most heavily occupied by students, I resent that the residents of my neighborhood are described as "non student residents".  When we moved here there were only grad students living here, mostly married with families, and very few of those.  The rest of the apartments and flats were occupied by working adults and families.  

    There are still a number of families who are faculty at Northwestern and professional people.  Over the years our neighborhood has been bought up by investors who rent to students, and in some cases the families who sold them were under the impression that their houses would be occupied by the investors, who misrepresented themselves.  Most of these investors do not live in Evanston and some don't even live in Illinois.  Not all students are partiers, but there are a number of satellite fraternity and sorority residences and their occupants have loud parties and the foot traffic from these, with shouting and screaming, creates sleepless nights for the permanent residents.  In most houses the multiple occupants have multiple cars.  An example of a family house turned into a rooming house (there is a requirement that conversions be licensed) is a house on Simpson once occupied by an older couple and initially bought by a Northwestern professor, that has at least 6 male residents and at one time had 9.  I'm all for defining family as adults who co-habitate and live as a family, but not a group of friends who crowd into a unit not meant to hold more than three people.  It turns the neighborhood into an unmanageable ghetto.

    Northwestern has a lot of responsibility for this situation by failing over the years to provide enough housing for its students.  Columbia College has a highrise apartment building with attractive apartments for its students with a common living space and satellite bedrooms for up to five occupants per unit.  These spaces have cooking facilities so the students don't have to be on an expensive meal plan.

    Lastly, why do we citizens of Evanston who pay very high taxes and have contributed to the community over the years, have to tolerate being treated as interlopers to a student neighborhood?  

    1. 2 Things…

      === I'm all for defining family as adults who co-habitate and live as a family, but not a group of friends who crowd into a unit not meant to hold more than three people. ===

      If this law is rescinded, it will still be unlawful for a group of people (related or not) to crowd into a unit "not meant to hold more than three people."  Occupancy standards will still exist.

      === Columbia College has a highrise apartment building with attractive apartments for its students with a common living space and satellite bedrooms for up to five occupants per unit.  These spaces have cooking facilities so the students don't have to be on an expensive meal plan. ===

      Such an apartment building might be a great addition to Evanston.  But a developer that is counting on student rentals will not build a five bedroom apartment if a law exists limiting the number of unrelated people that can live together to no more than three.  Because housing options and potential housing options are limited near campus (in part, because of this law) students are compelled to move further and further away from campus into what some consider "family" neighborhoods.  This law will aleve the concerns you express.

      1. I do not like green eggs and ham

        "Columbia College has a highrise apartment building with attractive apartments for its students with a common living space and satellite bedrooms for up to five occupants per unit."

        Like Howard says, it would be great to have these in Evanston.  But the notorious Judy Fiske opposed the nice Carroll Place project, and the Eastwood apartments, because 'students would live there'.

        So Judy's policy is:

        1.  No highrises for students (Carroll Place)

        2.  No low-rise apartments for students (Eastwood)

        3.  No renting single-family homes to students (brothel law)

        and , while nothing is official yet, once Northwestern reveals plans to build  dorm on the old Roycemore site Judy and her Concerned Neighbors will insist on :

        4.  No student housing on Northwestern University property

        You just can't reason with people like Judy.  Why do people buy houses next to the campus if they don't like students?

      2. City Code and occupants per bedroom

        City Code under definition of 'Family"

        "that in no case shall the total occupancy of the dwelling unit exceed two (2) persons per bedroom"


        This really superceeds many of the arguments about student and even number of people per unit.  If their can't be more than two family members per bedroom, unrelated people would imply no more people than for a 'Family.'  As written it seems a couple with one bedroom would not be allowed even one child.

  6. How would you feel about this?

    While living in Evanston, I have seen a few situations in which absentee landlords allowed more than 10 people to sleep in the living room of  tiny apartments.  These particular people were unrelated men who were very recent arrivals to this country and working as day laborers and needed a very low cost place to live.  Elsewhere, I have heard of other situations in which greedy landlords profit from this kind of sardine-can-style of occupancy by  other groups of vulnerable and disadvantaged people in addition to recently arrived immigrants.  I think this level of  crowding, which benefits unscrupulous landlords, is a violation of the current ordinance.  I would like to ask Jen and  Mr. Handler and the city council members who will vote on this matter to answer the question of whether allowing unlimited number of people into a housing unit is a good idea for the renters themselves and the neighbors and whether you would want this level of overcrowding next door to your own home.  

    1. in what way is this violating any of your rights?

      First off, I fail to see how this type of overcrowding benefits landlords.  More people means more wear and tear on a building, so it would hurt the landlords the most.  It would be in the landlords best interest to create their own rules as to who/how many they will allow to live in a building. Considering it is their property, they have a right to establish clear guildelines like this. As for it not being good for the renters themselves,  if they had money to live somewhere else, don't you think they would?  Who likes living like this?      What would be the alternative?  Living on the streets?               As for living next to this situation, in what way does the living conditions of other people affect you?   What rights are you personally losing due to this situation?    

    2. Unlimited people will not be allowed.

      It is critical to understand that whether or not Evanston's ordinance restricting the number of unrelated persons living together in a single unit to no more than three extists — ten people sleeping "in the living room of a tiny apartment" is illegal.  

      The City of Evanston maintains occupancy standards for all residents — whether they are related or not.  The prohibition on more than three unrelated persons is an added restriction on top of existing occupancy standards.  If the restriction on unrelated persons was rescinded today, there would still be caps on the number of people that occupy a unit based on square footage and number of bedrooms.

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