In Evanston, it’s illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live in one house or apartment. The ordinances in the City’s zoning code that impose this restriction are collectively referred to as "the 3-Unrelated Rule," or more interestingly, "the Brothel Law."
Joining Forces for Affordable Housing thanks Alderman Don Wilson for referring the 3-Unrelated Rule to the City’s Plan Commission for possible repeal. As a result of this referral, the Rule was most recently discussed on February 24 at the City's Zoning Committee (a sub-committee of the Plan Commission). The rule is examined every few years and, typically, no change is made and the rule stands. This time, this law should be repealed.
Joining Forces for Affordable Housing strongly advocates that the 3-Unrelated Rule be changed as follows during the spring of 2021:
Sharing housing has always been a survival strategy for human beings. The 3-Unrelated Rule prohibits use of this strategy, in fact, criminalizes it, for the people who need it most—those who cannot afford housing on their own but hope to share its costs with others. Making the changes to the 3-Unrelated Rule in the box above is the cheapest, simplest, and most immediate action the City of Evanston can take to open up opportunities for increased housing affordability--and it won't cost the City of Evanston a cent in subsidies or programming.
Examining the Purpose of the Ordinance
At the Zoning Committee meeting on February 24, committee members agreed that one purpose of the 3-Unrelated Rule is to limit building occupancy to ensure safety. However, they disagreed on whether a continued purpose should be to control the relationships among people living in a given unit of housing.
The reasoning given for supporting this use of the ordinance had to do with fears about housing for Northwestern students. The argument was that, if owners of single-family homes can’t rent to more than three unrelated people, they will be less likely to purchase buildings around the university that are currently occupied by “normal families” and flip them into profitable student housing. In university towns, there is a risk that stable residential neighborhoods will be replaced by student housing that is poorly maintained, has transient residents, and is host to loud parties and other nuisance behavior. The supporters of the 3-Unrelated Rule are looking to the Rule to prevent such a change around Northwestern.
In response to this discussion, Joining Forces would like to make the following points:
1. The 3-Unrelated Rule is discriminatory and perpetuates inequity in our community. Zoning Committee members danced around the exclusionary nature of the 3-Unrelated Rule. Joining Forces sees this as a problem. Throughout the Zoning Committee meeting, those who favored the 3-Unrelated Rule frequently used terminology like “normal” or “regular” in referring to who “we” want to live in “our” residential neighborhoods, and they cited the preservation of property values as one of their key concerns.
Even though students are the population many people are hoping to exclude from neighborhoods through use of the 3-Unrelated Rule, the impact of the Rule goes well beyond the student population (who, by the way, deserves the same housing rights as anyone else). The Rule, in effect, impacts anyone who wants to share housing in non-standard ways in order to split up costs and increase affordability. This includes:
The insistence that we preserve our neighborhoods for “regular” and “normal” families is reminiscent of the racist propaganda that was used in the 1950’s to promote single-family home ownership and the American Dream for the white middle class. To quote Alan Durning, founder and Executive Director of the Sightline Institute:
Current housing laws do not allow discrimination based on family status—even when the relations among household members are not those of a “normal” nuclear family. We believe that zoning laws should not either.
2. Zoning is not an appropriate tool with which to manage resident behavior. We empathize with those residents who are affected by student parties and noise. However, restricting the number of people in a dwelling unit has not reduced this type of nuisance. There is still a problem. Instead, the City of Evanston should do what many other university towns that struggle with the same problems have done:
3. Setting an arbitrary limit on how many people can live in a unit is a poor use of our resources and does not prevent overcrowding. Under the current rule, a family with two married adults and seven children could live in a two-bedroom unit, while four senior citizens or students could not legally share a four-bedroom house. Empty bedrooms are surely proliferating throughout the City. While the current ordinance restricts how these bedrooms could be used, it is failing to control overcrowding among large families or groups of two to three families who are sharing housing legally.
4. Effective enforcement of the 3-Unrelated Rule is highly unlikely. Unless a violation of the Rule is discovered during a regular inspection, most violations will only come to the attention of the City through neighbor complaints. In these cases, inspectors carry the burden of determining who is related to whom and how many unrelated people are living in a unit. This is invasive to residents, demoralizing for City staff, and an ineffective use of resources. Inspectors should be able to focus on safety issues.
5. The 3-Unrelated Rule cannot stop neighborhood change. There is the real danger in any university town that the areas surrounding the university will change and even deteriorate if the housing is all converted to student apartments. There are ways to manage this, including conversion rules, inspections, tear-down fees, parking restrictions, etc. Zoning certain types of people out of the area surrounding the university—especially students—will not solve the problem—and, in fact, has not solved the problem in the years that the 3-Unrelated Rule has been in place.
How You Can Take Action
Send an email or make a phone call to your alderman about your desire to see the 3-Unrelated Rule revoked. It is a remnant of another time that is restricting Evanston’s ability to be an inclusive, equitable, affordable place to live.