Letter to the Editor: Three Unrelated Rule puts off-campus students at risk of eviction

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A few years ago, when four Northwestern undergraduates first signed on to a unit off campus, their landlord, aware that four people would actually be living there, drew up a lease for three of them to sign. Several months later, their landlord noticed a fourth name on the mailbox. Claiming she had no knowledge of their living arrangement, she threatened to evict them unless they paid hundreds in extra rent.

This is not an isolated incident. For years, landlords have delayed — if not outright refused — to fix mold problems, heating failures and water damage, knowing that students are unable to file complaints without risking eviction because of the City of Evanston’s Three Unrelated Rule. By restricting occupancy to three students, the 3UR prevents those living in a unit with more than two other people from making any complaints to their landlord or to the city about unsatisfactory housing conditions without putting their housemates in jeopardy. This consequently strips these tenants of their legal rights and protections. In 2011, Evanston threatened to crack down on the ordinance and evict hundreds of residents. Fortunately, this did not happen, but the 3UR continues to leave students and residents vulnerable to extortion and abuse.

According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Student Business Education, this ordinance perennially plagues more than 1,500 undergraduate students, as well as graduate students and other Evanston residents. As rents in Evanston rise, living with more than two other people is often a necessity. Furthermore, as NU aims to a build a more socioeconomically diverse class and reach a student body of 20 percent Pell Grant recipients, this problem will only worsen.

What does this ordinance attempt to fix? It is absurd to argue that the relational status among tenants causes them to party excessively and damage their rental property (Sherman Ave actually published a satirical article on the issue). After Associated Student Government filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the city, we found that only a handful of rental properties make up the vast majority of complaints to the city about students. Evanston already has provisions in place, such as the nuisance ordinance and property maintenance standards, that, if better enforced, can more effectively address neighbor complaints of rambunctious college students. It does not make sense that more than a thousand students who are simply trying to make ends meet are being punished for the actions of a few.

This past Monday at City Council, Ald. Judy Fiske (1st), along with some city residents, expressed concerns that discarding the 3UR would only create more overcrowded student housing and degrade the community and its residential character. They argued that the 3UR serves as a protection against developers who are buying single-family homes and converting them into split-level apartments for students. These are valid concerns, yet neighborhoods have nonetheless been changing in these ways while the 3UR has been in place. In reality, the rule does not achieve Fiske’s stated goals. Instead, it only makes tenants susceptible to abuse and neglect from certain landlords. This harmful status quo has continued for far too long.

During the Monday meeting, Fiske refused to clarify when this issue would be back on the agenda. The 3UR has been in and out of conversations at City Council since before 2011. Some aldermen have suggested waiting yet another year to see the effects of Northwestern’s new two-year live-in requirement. But this only prolongs finding a real solution. There will only be 306 new beds for undergraduate students on campus next year. Waiting a year to act will mean rolling the dice not only on thousands of students but also on other Evanston residents too — especially immigrants, low-income folks and senior citizens, many of whom currently live in violation of this antiquated rule. It means we are forced to cross our fingers as tenants and hope nothing bad happens because fear of eviction makes city resources virtually inaccessible. After decades of looking the other way, City Council needs to finally address the harms perpetuated by the 3UR.

The city could repeal the rule and enforce existing property maintenance and nuisance ordinances, raise the limit from three unrelated tenants to four, require increased licensing or implement some combination of these solutions — either way, something needs to change.

Opponents argue that we must preserve the residential character of our community. Yet, the only way to truly do that is to ensure the integrity of the housing conditions under which all residents live — students included. The 3UR only diverts attention away from solutions that actually address complaints. If Evanston wants to stay true to its claim that it is a welcoming city for all, then it’s time the city left this rule in the past where it belongs.

—Northwestern University Associated Student Government