While other progressive communities have adopted dramatic housing reforms — like eliminating single family zoning — Evanston’s current City Council has enacted hardly any zoning policy changes in its first two years.

By contrast, Evanston Now’s review of Planning and Development Committee agendas over the past four years shows that the prior City Council approved significant policy changes during its final two years.

Prior council actions

The 80th Council authorized detached accessory dwelling units — granny flats or coach houses behind homes — in January 2020.

Then it approved internal and attached accessory dwelling units in September 2020.

And, in February 2021, it approve new rules to encourage the development of small “efficiency homes” on vacant small lots across the city.

Accessory dwelling units are only one piece of the puzzle in efforts to increase the supply of housing in the city, but the changes do appear to be having an impact. The latest city manager’s weekly report shows seven zoning reviews filed within the past three months to build ADUs.

The 80th Council also rejected a moratorium on condo deconversions, rejected efforts to downzone — reduce the allowed housing density — in a section of the 5th Ward and part of a block in the 1st Ward and expanded the list of permitted home occupations.

Current council inaction

By contrast, the 81st Council has bottled up zoning reform efforts in the Housing Subcommittee of the Planning and Development Committee — a new group created at the request of and chaired by Ald. Clare Kelly (1st).

That panel, initially imagined to have just a six-month life, has failed to report out any proposals for action to the full Planning and Development Committee in its 19 months of existence.

After canceling every monthly meeting since last November, it is now scheduled to meet Tuesday night, with many of the same discussion items that were on its early agendas — the zoning definition of family and the three-unrelated rule, spacing regulations for group homes and congregate housing and reform of the city’s rental registration rules.

However the new Council did reject Kelly’s proposal for a six-month moratorium on non-owner-occupied internal or attached ADUs.

And the new Council approved a staff proposal as modified by the Plan Commission to make live-work units a permitted use in most non-residential zoning districts.

What’s happening elsewhere

Other communities faced with an affordable housing crisis, including Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, have voted to end zoning rules that reserve large swaths of land for single family homes.

Berkeley, California, has pledged to add nearly 9,000 new housing units by 2031, increasing its housing stock by roughly 18%. Neighboring Oakland, California has promised 26,000 new units by 2031, a 14% increase. Both of those plans recently were rejected by the state as insufficient.

In Arlington, Virginia, the County Board has voted unanimously to permit two-to-six unit homes throughout the county on land that was previously zoned only for single family housing.

Housing approvals decline

Meanwhile in Evanston, Council approvals of new housing construction in the city in the last two years have fallen by more than half from the levels achieved in the last two years of the previous City Council.

Housing production is subject not just to the Council’s actions, but also to market forces, but the perceived receptivity of council members to new development has an impact on how many projects are proposed.

What’s next?

Evanston is about to embark on a consultant-led process to develop a new comprehensive plan and zoning code for the city.

The current comprehensive plan dates to 2000 and the zoning code to 1993 — although the zoning code has been tweaked numerous times since.

Responses from consulting firms to the city’s request for proposals were due last week, and City Manager Luke Stowe said at a 1st Ward meeting Thursday that he expects staff to have a recommendation for Council on which firm to hire by July.

From there, Stowe said, the process of developing a new plan and code are expected to take about 24 months.

That means a new plan and zoning code aren’t likely to be ready for approval until after a new City Council is elected in April 2025.

But Stowe told ward residents, “We’ll look for low-hanging fruit to see what can be done in the meantime.”

More stories in our midterm review of the City Council:

Alders seek more economic regulation and reduce constraints on personal behavior.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. While this other city’s end zoning regulations to be able to accommodate the affordable housing crisis Evanston beats around the bush and continues to cluster (redlined) affordable housing into primarily black and brown neighborhoods! If this was a crisis as they say and they like to tell me and my group that it is why are we not ending single-family zoning in primarily white neighborhoods? Mean what you say and do as you say! Why did Ward 7 reject an opportunity to have more affordable housing In their ward and have to deal with HODC?

    1. Because this Council is clearly more interested in performative gestures like approving a problematically run homeless shelter or discussing topless beaches than taking steps to help actual working people?

  2. If you believe in free markets and if Evanston housing is overpriced, people won’t come to Evanston or will leave. If there is less demand, prices will drop to reflect the lower demand (and with higher demand, higher prices). The market is a self correcting mechanism. Let the market do its job. If Evanston is overpriced, let Skokie/Morton Grove/Niles benefit from our overpriced housing. Evanston’s population was 73,234 in 1990 and is now 77,517. The population is growing.
    If people of their own free will want to sell/rent their property for under market rates, that is their choice–the council needs to stay out of this.

    1. It seems to me that zoning, by not permitting a use/investment that might provide a higher return violates free market principles.

      1. Exactly – the current restrictive zoning distorts the free market. Not sure what jpf doesn’t understand about that.

  3. The simplest and most efficient way of achieving affordable housing is for the city to approve as many market rate housing developments as possible.

    A Dramatic increase in new market-rate housing will create downward pressure on the prices of older, less desirable housing thereby making those properties more affordable.

  4. One of the biggest obstacles to affordable housing in Evanston is the property tax burden. Perhaps that would be a good starting point – reduce taxes to accommodate affordable housing.

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