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September 22, 2017

9/6/2017 1:06:00 PM
The City Needs a Plan for Its Affordable Housing Fund

Evanston’s campaign season ended with the April election, and so ended, it appears, the desire of Evanston elected officials to prioritize affordable housing. The campaign trail was full of talk, and one entire debate focused on the issue.

Once the votes were cast, though, the issue faded, behind such hot-ticket items as the Harley Clarke mansion, parking fines, and public art. City Council has taken no action at all to establish a comprehensive affordable-housing policy for the City.

The results of a lack of policy are predictable. Seeing money in an affordable housing fund and absolutely no plan or policy on how to spend it, developers salivate. The developer of the proposed 100 Chicago Ave. project counted on a cool million dollars out of the Affordable Housing Fund as part of the $3.5 million in City largesse initially sought.

Council ultimately removed the $1 million and made gestures toward reserving the fund until a policy could be established. Council then took no steps – none – toward creating such a policy.

Other ad hoc projects have come forward. In April, shortly after the new Council was sworn in, Community Partners for Affordable Housing asked for and received nearly $580,000 to purchase and rehab just two units of housing. The three-bedroom units will undoubtedly meet a crying need in the City, as much of our affordable housing stock consists of smaller units not suited to families. But the drop-in-the-bucket feel cannot be denied.

 An apartment complex at 831 Emerson St. was approved by Council, and the developers agreed to comply with Evanston’ newly revised Inclusionary Housing Ordinance by paying $2.4 million into the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.

Now come two more projects, one that would generate funds for affordable housing and one that would seek such funding. The 14-story mixed-use project at 1450 Sherman Ave. would generate $2.9 million for the City’s Affordable Housing Fund. The developer of a 16-unit affordable housing project at 2215 Dempster St. plans to ask for money from the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.

All of these projects point out over and over the fundamental problem: The City has an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, and money flows into the City’s Affordable Housing Fund through the application of the Ordinance. But the City has absolutely no plan and no policy for how to use its money.

It is no wonder new groups oppose the plan of the developer of the Sherman Avenue project to pay into the Affordable Housing Fund rather than create 30 one-bedroom affordable units on site. The City has no framework to spend the money.

One wonders if City Council simply lacks political will. The affordable housing problem is real, and it is hard. New construction brings about rents unimaginable just 10 years ago – $1,800 for a one-bedroom unit of less than 600 square feet, for example. Ballooning property taxes place even once-attainable small homes out of reach for moderate-income families.

We stare into an exceedingly difficult, exceedingly complex problem. Affordable housing can benefit many different types of people: the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the homeless, minimum-wage earners, single parents, battered partners, and refugees, just to name a few.

There are different approaches as well: rental assistance, home-ownership programs, temporary housing, homeless shelters, emergency housing, and roommate-match programs, as examples.

It is a lot to sort through, and there is far less help coming from state and federal sources.

But that only increases the need. Evanston should be leading the way with an innovative, daring, comprehensive, all-inclusive, and flexible approach to the affordable housing crisis. Realistically, we have limited funds to solve a massive problem, even though five million dollars sounds like a lot. But we have dedicated, committed, knowledgeable community members who are willing to help.

It is time to get to work. City Council should create a special subcommittee to craft a plan about how to use the money in the Affordable Housing Fund to maximize the Fund’s potential in developing and providing affordable housing.

The subcommittee should also lay out and define the City’s overarching policy so developers – and residents – know where we as a community stand when it comes to affordable housing.

The time is now.


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