Students, city officials seek to change Evanston’s ‘brothel law’


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Houses on Garnett Place. A significant number of Northwestern undergraduate students live off campus, many in houses and apartments with more than three unrelated people.

Ryan Wangman, City Editor

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The age-old platitude will rear its ugly head as city officials will once again consider steps to revise or replace an ordinance mandating the maximum number of unrelated people who can live together in Evanston.

The ordinance, which is often referred to as the city’s “brothel law,” requires that no more than three unrelated individuals reside in any living unit, apartment, or house that is being rented — unless the landlord has taken the step of obtaining a valid lodging license. If the law is broken, the city’s zoning board may notify landlords that they must choose to pay a fine or terminate the lease and evict the tenants.

A significant number of Northwestern undergraduate students live off campus, many in houses and apartments with more than three unrelated people.

Associated Student Government’s vice president for community relations Michael Deneroff said the ordinance creates a population of vulnerable students and tenants around Evanston who are afraid to report landlord abuse. He said ASG’s committee for community relations has been working throughout the quarter to put pressure on city officials to revert from the ordinance to property maintenance standards that are already in place in Evanston.   

Deneroff said ASG sent three students to the Jan. 29 City Council meeting, where they spoke about affordability for students and shared stories of those who have experienced landlord abuse or neglect and called on city officials to enact change.

“The problem with the three-unrelated ordinance is that there’s many ordinances already in Evanston and regulations that prevent and (deal) with students who potentially are creating disturbances in the neighborhood,” Deneroff said. “This ordinance is not solving any problem in Evanston right now.”

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) and Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th), who preside over the wards most students live in, will host a joint ward meeting 7 p.m. Friday to discuss community concerns relating to the ordinance. The meeting will also feature a presentation on off-campus housing and the impact of the two-year live-in requirement, as well as one on tenant rights and fair housing.

Fiske, who defended the ordinance at the January meeting, said then that she instead wants to concentrate on increasing the number of rooming house licenses given out in the 1st Ward. Examples of existing rooming houses include NU residential halls, fraternity and sorority houses and single-family homes often rented to students living off campus.

Fiske told The Daily that increasing the number of rooming houses would provide more opportunities for students to live in larger groups, while also preventing situations where students are forced to hide their occupancy numbers for fear of eviction or extortion.

“Rooming houses actually provide a safety net, especially for students,” Fiske said in January. “It means that legally, more than three students can rent in a house. … This is a way of addressing (the students’) problem in a more transparent way.”

In addition to student pressure, the conversation around the issue has recently started up again as aldermen and city staff have looked for creative solutions to find more opportunities for affordable housing in Evanston. In October, aldermen referred the ordinance to be revisited by the Planning and Development Committee.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) said the law is “absolutely discriminatory” towards landlords and tenants and long overdue to be changed. She said she is supportive of the efforts to repealing the ordinance and replace it with a property maintenance standard and that she found it hard to believe anyone could justify having the law in place today.

“There needs to be rules in any community having nothing to with who’s living in the buildings,” Rainey said. “But I totally dismiss the idea of three unrelated people. That’s an arbitrary number (and) has nothing to do with the size of the units.”  

Tensions over the law, originally passed in 1960, last erupted in January 2011 when the city announced it would begin enforcing the policy on July 1 of that year. More than 500 students attended a town hall on the issue, prompting the city to back down from its plan.

City officials discussed steps to address the ordinance in 2012, but ultimately did not act upon them. Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) drafted an amendment to the law in November of that year, but the situation stalled after the proposed legislature was repeatedly delayed by Evanston committees.   

After several years, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz said as the council has looked at affordable housing issues more broadly, revisiting the ordinance has been on the table. He said for the city to provide opportunities for housing for people who need it, city officials need to look not only at new housing that can be created, but more efficient ways to use housing currently available in Evanston.

“The focus of the three-unrelated discussions previous to this have been solely focused on housing adjacent to the university,” Bobkiewicz said. “This is kind of a new twist on all this, and I think that the council is going to want to move slowly and deliberately.”

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