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Recession Blues and Housing Woes

Evanston, Illinois landlords and real estate professionals want the city to revisit ordinances that they call antiquated and ineffective, limiting the number of residents in a rental unit to three unrelated people.

“The law the way it’s currently written doesn’t solve the problem,” said Joshua Braun, whose investment group owns a six-unit apartment building and eight rental houses in Evanston. “I think the bigger focus is that there are a handful of residents who are very adamant and very upset about drinking and misconduct, and rightfully so,” he said. “But their response has been the students who live off campus have parties and they draw people, so if landlords rent to other people, the problem would be solved. Residents need to be realistic with the source of the problem. The true source is noise and partying that goes on, not the student who lives next to them.”

On the other hand, Evanston officials have reported an increase in resident-based complaints of too many people living in a single household and of illegally altered rental properties and they say that complaints are most prevalent in neighborhoods with larger quantities of off-campus student housing. Between Noyes and Emerson streets, east of Ridge Avenue, the city recorded 173 such complaints in 2010.

In November of last year, Evanston officials said they would increase the level of scrutiny paid to illegally altered and overcrowded rental properties. The city’s current law says that property owners must obtain a valid lodging establishment license to allow more than three unrelated persons to reside in a dwelling unit. Acquiring a lodging establishment license requires an annual fee of $166 per building, and $26 per occupant. No landlords to date have obtained a lodging establishment license in Evanston, officials said.

City officials have met with staff and representatives from Northwestern University to discuss housing issues pertaining to Northwestern students. As a result of this meeting, the city decided to postpone enforcement actions on violations observed in off-campus student housing until the end of the academic year in June in order to limit the impact on students, according to Ald. Judy Fiske.

“All of us felt really good about that,” Fiske said. “We said we have violations that need correction, but we don’t want students put out of housing.”

However that victory was short-lived, when the Northwestern University student newspaper printed an article claiming the city would start enforcing its three-unrelated law on July 1 and that many students would face eviction.

“I don’t know why the paper came out with an article that was a bit more sensational,” Fiske said. “Somehow the message got confused. It was interpreted we would possibly evict students to address these violations.”

In an interview with the Tribune given prior to this incident, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said the law has never resulted in a student having to leave an apartment. However, city officials issued a release saying that landlords found in violation of the three-unrelated law “may ultimately terminate your lease/sublease.”

“This law is scary for Northwestern students,” said junior Joshua Brechner. “It scares us to think we could get kicked out of our apartment for signing a lease we didn’t know was wrong.”

Fiske and other city officials reiterated that the city’s housing code is meant to protect the safety and well being of residents. City officials can point to several instances where illegally altered houses have presented potential safety hazards to occupants.

For example, one single-family home with eight occupied sleeping rooms was found with a third floor renovation that provided no ingress or egress to the main house. “Its only access being an outside ladder that is adjacent to the main electric service line,” officials said in a release.

In another dangerous housing situation, two sleeping rooms were illegally installed in the basement of a single family home with “no safety, building or electrical inspections being provided,” the release states. “The only egress for the two basement occupants is through a kitchen door with no emergency escape windows.”

Braun said the landlords he’s spoken to are committed to working with the city and residents to provide safe housing. However, he said the root of the problem boiled down to partying and wild behavior, rather than houses being unsafe or unfit for residents.

“The root is that there is a lot of partying,” he said. “Everyone has to do their part and come up with a law that will work for everybody. The law as it’s enforced today affects people who live in other parts of Evanston.”

In today’s weakened economy, more people are turning to house sharing as a way to maintain their homes and pay mortgages and property taxes, noted Howard Handler, government affairs director of North Shore — Barrington Association of Realtors.

“The definition of a family has changed,” Handler said. “The way people live has changed.” He pointed out that circumstances in Evanston are different than in most of the 31 communities his association represents.

“Evanston is more urban, more student oriented,” he said. “The impact is greater in Evanston than in other communities.”

“The irony is that Evanston is supposed to be this leader in affordable housing and sustainability,” he added. “This ordinance is contrary to both those missions. It increases housing costs and pushes people further and further away from the centers of their lives.”

Potential approaches to addressing this problem vary. Handler suggested the city amend its ordinance to address the square footage of a residence instead of unrelated tenants. Braun suggested the city modify the law to specifically state what a bedroom is and how many people can occupy a bedroom. Braun also recommended simplifying the lodging license procedure to make it easier for landlords to acquire one. “In my mind, the city should focus on simplifying the process, not putting layer upon layer,” he said.

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