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After nine months of study, the Evanston Affordable Housing Task Force has submitted a draft Plan for Affordable Housing in Evanston. The plan, prepared during an economic downturn and a time of increasing foreclosures and declining real estate prices, recommends that the City shift its focus from developing affordable housing for home ownership to increasing the number of affordable rental units.

Susan Munro, chair of the task force, told the RoundTable the task force was recommending this shift in focus in part because the Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs) in Evanston have recently had difficulty selling the affordable housing units that they have developed, credit is tight, and some people who bought homes in the past were not ready to do so and are now in foreclosure.

“A model that was working well for a while isn’t working well now,” she said.

While not abandoning all homeownership programs, the task force recommends that for the next three to five years the City use the bulk of its federal and local funds to increase the number of rental units that are affordable to families with incomes below the Area Median Income (AMI).

This year the AMI for a family of four is $74,900. To be affordable, the cost to rent an apartment should not exceed 30 percent of the family’s annual income.

The report emphasizes that maintaining affordable housing in the City is essential to preserve diversity and to enable working families earning less than the AMI to live here.

“Evanston’s diversity is a major factor in attracting people to the community; we need a housing stock that supports that diversity,” says the report. “Affordable housing must be seen as vital to Evanston’s workforce and working families, as an investment in Evanston’s long-term diversity and economic development.”

 Both a study prepared last year by the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and the City’s 2009 Consolidated Plan concluded that there would continue to be unmet housing needs for low- and moderate-income households in Evanston. While the need is significant, the task force recognizes there is “not nearly enough money to do the things that need to be done.” The task force thus recommends only those strategies it “considered both important and doable.”

 Some key strategies of the draft plan include establishing a rent assistance program and converting vacant condo units and foreclosed properties into affordable rental housing. The draft plan also recommends that the City hire a housing director who can take the lead in implementing these and other strategies and attempt to secure funding from sources outside the City.

The task force has 18 members who have “tremendous experience” in housing issues, Ms. Munro told the RoundTable. The task force was formed by the Housing Commission at the direction of the City’s Planning and Development Committee.

Rent Subsidies

The task force found that “Landlords willing to rent to low-income individuals and families are hard-pressed to find an economical model that works.” The task force recommends that this need be addressed by expanding Connections’ Families in Transition program, and by establishing a new rent subsidy program.

The Families in Transition program has helped a few families get back on their feet each year by providing rent subsidies – about $5,000 per year – to organizations sponsoring the families. Under the program social services agencies, typically Connections, also provide support. The task force recommends this program be expanded to serve as many as 20 very-low income families (e.g. less than 50% AMI) per year.

The task force also recommends that the City establish a new rent subsidy program, which might be patterned after Chicago’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund. That program provides rent subsidies to qualified landlords to enable them to rent to low-income households.

The report says the new rent subsidy program should be started as a pilot program, to make sure it works in Evanston; and, conceptually, rental units should located throughout the City, and support services, such as classes on budgeting and tenant responsibilities, should be provided to the tenants. An ad hoc committee of landlords, housing experts, social service providers, and city staff should work together to design and monitor the pilot program, says the report.

The task force says a desired outcome of the new rental subsidy program would be to serve 40 low-income families (e.g., 50-80% of AMI) per year, with rent subsidies averaging about $5,000 per year. Ms. Munro said as the program is developed, actual goals would need to be set.

Convert Underutilized Housing To Affordable Rental Housing

The task force also recommends that the City convert existing underutilized housing into affordable housing, primarily affordable rental housing. The task force says, “The City and/or partner organizations could purchase individual condominium units, entire condo buildings that could be converted to rental, and/or explore long-term master leases with current owners.”

The task force says the City and its partner organizations have an unusual opportunity to buy properties in the current housing market because more than 350 condos are for sale throughout the City, including condo units in several buildings in foreclosure, and the City may be able to be purchase these properties at favorable prices.

While recognizing that obtaining financing to implement this strategy is a major hurdle, the task force says a desired outcome is to buy 100 housing units and convert them into affordable rental units.

Ms. Munro said this proposed goal is ambitious, and the City would probably need to partner with a larger developer to make it happen.

The report says City staff should convene a group of housing commissioners, developers, landlords and potential partners to identify housing units or buildings to acquire, that City staff should explore funding methods, and that the City should use all resources available, including issuing bonds, to acquire properties.

Convert Foreclosed Properties into Rental Units

The report says there were 267 foreclosures in 2008 and 149 in the first six months of 2009, and the City is monitoring over 100 vacant buildings. “We must act now to deal with the foreclosure crisis in Evanston,” says the report.

The City has applied to HUD for $40.6 million in neighborhood stabilization funds to acquire and rehab 100 foreclosed properties in parts of the Fifth and Eighth wards and to construct 98 units on an industrial site in west Evanston. The plan is to rent 134 of these units and to sell 63.

In preparing the HUD application, the City formed a partnership with Brinshore Development, a successful developer of affordable housing. The application contemplates that Brinshore will acquire and rehab the properties, raise a portion of the funds necessary to do so, and manage the rental units.

 If HUD funds are not obtained, the task force recommends that City staff build on the knowledge it acquired in preparing the HUD application and take the lead in bringing together a consortium of banks to create a revolving loan fund to buy and rehab vacant and foreclosed properties. The goal is to recover five properties in the first year, if HUD funding is not available.

Ms. Munro said a partner would probably be necessary to carry out this strategy, and said it could be Habitat for Humanity, a CHDO, or a larger developer. She said it was important that the City be strategic in selecting the area to focus on. An otherwise well-maintained block with several foreclosures may deteriorate if action is not taken, she said.

Other Goals/Strategies

The task force recommends other strategies to address affordable housing:

  • provide a $25,000 grant to Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs to increase its foreclosure prevention counseling to Evanston residents;
  • ensure that banks are not redlining portions of Evanston in deciding which building to rehab and sell;
  • ncontinue the City’s existing down payment assistance program, which provides forgivable grants of up to $30,000, depending on income level, to be used towards the purchase of a home.
  • namend the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance to make it applicable to smaller developments, and increase the fee in lieu to $100,000.
  • evaluate the CHDOs to determine if they have the capacity to address the City’s affordable housing needs;
  • neducate the public about the need for affordable housing; and
  • build political support for affordable housing at the City Council level, says the report.

To carry out these and other strategies, the task force says it is “fundamental” that the City elevate housing as a priority within City government and that the City hire a housing director who can implement the strategies and leverage money from sources outside the City to help finance the proposals.

Ms. Munro said the task force will issue its final plan in December. Anyone wishing to submit comments on the draft plan may email them to Ms. Munro at susanmunro47@sbcglobal.net.

Council Discussion of Affordable Housing

City Council’s Nov. 9 discussion of its affordable-housing goal appeared to be a prelude to a discussion now planned for Dec. 7. At the Council meeting, City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz reviewed the recommendations of the Task Force (see accompanying article) and added several recommendations of City staff. Some of these recommendations are also found in the proposal the City submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for $41 million in Neighborhood Stabilization (stimulus) funds.

Staff proposals include the following: rehab older housing stock; acquire for rehab and resale vacant and foreclosed properties; expand the down-payment assistant and the single-family rehab programs; construct infill housing on the City’s West side; construct new housing [in the] Howard Street [area] as part of a revitalization strategy; create new models of successful mixed-income housing; enable moderate- and lower-middle-income Evanston families to purchase a home; continue with Connections’ Families In Transition program; continue collaborations with agencies that offer advice on preventing foreclosure; make more effective use of available funding through the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

When Mr. Bobkiewicz recommended that City staff incorporate both the staff’s and the task force’s recommendations into a working plan and return it to Council, some aldermen balked. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “”Affordable housing is one of our goals. We just had a report [from the task force]. Instead of having our staff come up with a plan, how about having a special meeting and have the alderman come up with a plan? Instead of having a plan to react to, I’d like for us to initiate a discussion of affordable housing. There are some problems in our town – over 100 vacant and foreclosed and abandoned homes.””

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said to the City Manager, “”My concern is that you approach this problem as though we started from scratch. … We’ve been [working on it] for a long time.””

Aldermen Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, and Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, agreed that another meeting would be appropriate – “”not to start from scratch,”” said Ald. Burrus, “”but to see what we can get behind.””

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl suggested waiting until December to have the discussion, saying that word from HUD was that the City would hear in December about its application for Neighborhood Stabilization Funds. “”The discussion will be very different if we get the grant than if we don’t get the grant,”” she said.

The Dec. 7 meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., with residents’ budget recommendations, followed by the affordable-housing discussion.