Evanston officials to propose amending controversial ‘brothel law’

Marshall Cohen, Print Managing Editor

Evanston officials are preparing to propose changes to the city’s so-called “brothel law,” the controversial occupancy ordinance at the center of recent town-gown tensions.

The proposal would relax limits on the number of unrelated residents that can live together. The city’s current over-occupancy law prohibits more than three unrelated people from living in the same unit. About 4,000 Northwestern students live off campus, many in houses and apartments with more than three unrelated residents.

Occupancy laws in Evanston have collected plenty of dust over the years. The provision regarding three unrelated roommates — which is still on the books — dates back to an ordinance originally passed in 1960. If aldermen give the new proposal their stamp of approval, it would only be the fourth change to the occupancy law in more than 50 years. The law was amended twice in 1964 and upgraded to its current form in 1993.

Ald. Don Wilson (4th) drafted an amendment to the antiquated law and said he plans to refer his proposal to the Planning and Development Committee at the city council meeting Monday.

The alderman began drafting the ordinance after serving alongside landlords, students and residents on the city’s Rental Unit Licensing Committee earlier this year.

“I’ve spent a bit of time working on some suggested changes to both address some of the community concerns and student concerns,” Wilson said. “What I want to do is focus on the nature of the building as opposed to looking at the numbers of people.”

Wilson said his proposal is a compromise that balances the concerns of NU students with those of Evanston residents and landlords.

There are four codified types of families in Evanston. Type (C) families are defined as a “group of no more than three unrelated persons living together as a single housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit,” according to city code.

The plan would amend the current ordinance to increase the number of unrelated people in a type (C) family from three to four, Wilson said. Furthermore, up to six unrelated people could live together in multiple-family dwellings like apartments.

However, apartment units must fulfill some requirements before the city certifies eligibility for up to six roommates. The unit must have been originally constructed with proper permits, needs to currently comply with zoning codes and must have at least the same number of bedrooms as occupants.

“We try for the common-sense reforms,” Ald. Jane Grover (7th) said of the proposal.

Students in over-occupied apartments regularly withhold names on a rental agreement and will change the appearance of a modified room in anticipation of a city inspection. Although students are not specifically mentioned, the NU off-campus student population stands to gain more flexibility if the proposal becomes law in Evanston.

“Glad to hear it — six seems like a more realistic number than three,” University President Morton Schapiro said in an email after hearing about the proposed reform.

Wilson’s plans were first disclosed last week when Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl mentioned possible changes to the law during a discussion with the Northwestern University Political Union.

“I support what I believe is going to come from the council, hopefully at some point soon, which is a proposal Alderman Wilson has worked on that would allow more than three unrelateds in an apartment,” Tisdahl told a small crowd at the Nov. 14 event.

Tisdahl’s public endorsement of amending the law came as a surprise. The mayor has consistently argued that the issue was a manufactured controversy and adamantly refuses to use the term “brothel law,” a phrase popularized by NU students.

Tensions first erupted in January 2011 after Evanston officials said they would start actively enforcing the rule on July 1 of that year. But after 500 students attended a town hall meeting about the issue — an unprecedented showing of student support — the city backed down.

However, when students returned to Evanston for the new school year, some reported that city inspectors were trying to enforce the over-occupancy law at their residences. City officials publicly released a list of about 50 student properties that were under investigation for violating various city codes, a move that angered students and landlords alike.

Tisdahl assured the NU community that no rental licenses to properties under investigation would be revoked or denied before July 1, 2012. That enforcement date came and went without reported problems, but questions remained regarding the law.

Meghan Morris contributed reporting.