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The special City Council meeting on Jan. 13 was devoted to the City’s affordable-housing goal, one of the 12 goals adopted by Council last year to set a framework for future policies and actions.
Susan Munro, chair of the City’s Affordable Housing Task Force, presented the group’s final plan for affordable housing in Evanston. One key strategy of the plan is to shift the focus from developing affordable housing for home ownership to increasing the number of affordable rental units. The plan also calls for strengthening the “infrastructure” of affordable housing, educating the public on affordable housing, demonstrating a “public commitment” to affordable housing, and re-examining the City’s building and zoning regulations through the lens of the affordable-housing goals.Increasing the Number of Affordable Rental Units
The task force recommends that the City increase the number of affordable rental units in the city by establishing rent assistance programs and converting vacant condo units and foreclosed properties into affordable rental housing units.
Rent subsidies could be provided by expanding Connections’ Families in Transition Program, which provides a rent subsidy of about $5,000 per year to very-low income families, together with social service supports, said Ms. Munro. The task force also recommends piloting a new rent subsidy program under which subsidies would be provided directly to qualified landlords to enable them to rent to low-income households.
Ms. Munro said the City could also purchase individual condominium units or entire condo buildings that are in foreclosure and convert them to affordable rental units. In carrying out this strategy, Ms. Munro said the City should explore partnerships with developers and explore various methods to acquire the properties.
In addition, the task force recommends that the City implement as much as possible the two projects outlined in the City’s application for a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grant – purchasing, rehabbing and returning to the market vacant and foreclosed properties on the south and west side, and building a new mixed-unit (composed of apartment, single-family homes and town homes) affordable housing project on Emerson Street. (Ms. Munro’s presentation came one day before the City learned it had received $18 million in NSP funding.)Infrastructure/Commitment
By “strengthening the infrastructure,” Ms. Munro said, the task force means that City staff and the Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs) should be more accountable. CHDOs develop affordable housing in the City with the assistance of federal grants. To become a CHDO, an organization must be certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At present Evanston has four CHDOs: Reba Place, Evanston Community Development Agency, Evanston Housing Coalition and Citizens Lighthouse Community Land Trust.
All of the recent projects by these CHDOs aim at home ownership, and several continue to struggle to find appropriate buyers, Ms. Munro said. Some aldermen have objected to developers’ reaching into Chicago or elsewhere to find purchasers, since the City subsidized the projects with the understanding they were to be developed as affordable housing for Evanston residents.
The City should “help the CHDOs strengthen or disband,” she said.
According to the task force plan, the City should also “educate the public” about what affordable housing means. “Citizens don’t know about affordable housing,” Ms. Munro said. “They think of Section 8 [now called “housing certificates”], big projects, poor people and Cabrini Green, and they don’t want to deal with them.” She said many people who work in or for Evanston have a need for affordable housing, such as teachers, firefighters, police officers, social workers and other professionals.
One way the City can demonstrate its “commitment to affordable housing,” according to the task force, is to have an alderman sit as a member of the Housing Commission. Another way is a “social marketing campaign,” Ms. Munro said, which would also tie in with public education. The City might have an ad campaign with the slogan, “We need the people who need affordable housing.”Aldermanic Comment
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I appreciate the shift toward more rental units.”
Asked how difficult it would be to expand Connections’ Families in Transition program, Paul Selden, Connections’ executive director said, “The main things is lining up enough social services. … Realistically a case manager can handle ten families each year, so we could add about 10 families by the end of next year and in the next two to three years get to 20 additional families.”
Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus asked whether there are volunteer opportunities in the affordable-housing plan.
Andrew McGonigle, one of the Task Force members, said the Task Force proposed using the model of Habitat for Humanity. “Northwestern University has a ‘Greeks for Habitat’ and Kellogg [Northwestern University’s business school] has a business model for Habitat, so if we can find a way of enticing Habitat, there would be volunteer opportunities.”
Evanston has not participated in Habitat for Humanity for several years.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I think more than policy, it was politics that drove Habitat out of Evanston. … We need them back.” She asked City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz whether the Council should pass a resolution to that effect.”
Ms. Tisdahl said, “Part of the job of mayor is begging, so I’d be glad to hold a meeting and beg Habitat to return.”Next Steps
Mr. Bobkiewicz said City staff would “be back in a few weeks” with some clarified and solidified plans.
For more information on the Task Force’s plan see the Nov. 11 issue of the RoundTable. The plan is also available on the City’s website, www.cityofevanston.org.