The amount of affordable housing in Evanston has steadily declined in the last decade, making it difficult for low- and moderate-income households to locate here. In addition, 86% of the low- and moderate income households who currently reside here are paying more in housing costs than is viewed as being sustainable.

These trends are not new. “The steady decline of affordable rental units in Evanston has been a central topic in every housing analysis, report and plan developed in the last five years,” says a July 17, 2014 memorandum prepared by Mark Muenzer, the City’s director of community development, Sarah Flax, housing and grants administrator, and Mary Ellen Poole, housing planner.

Affordable housing is a broad concept and includes low- and moderate-income households. “People don’t understand often that we’re talking about people who are living and working in the community,” said Robert Anthony, executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH) and a member of the Evanston’s 2009 Affordable Housing Task Force. “What we’re doing by creating affordable housing is serving people who are working in the schools, the hospitals, retail establishments. That’s the reality of affordable housing,” Mr. Anthony said.

Mr. Muenzer told the RoundTable affordable housing encompasses not only households at the lowest level of the income spectrum, but people who are working full time in the schools or waiting tables in Evanston’s booming restaurant business, or young people who are starting out their careers at entry-level salaries. “I wish there was this larger notion that affordability does not equal poverty.”

While preserving affordable housing is on the radar, it may be difficult to overcome the market forces that are a driving factor. The City’s draft Consolidated Plan for 2015-19 (CPlan) says in stark terms, “Housing affordability is expected to diminish in Evanston based on consistent increases in both property values and rents and no foreseeable decline in the immediate future or longer term. Evanston’s low and moderate income population will continue to be priced out of their community as home prices and rental rates rise.”

Evanston’s success and its popularity has a flip side. Evanston has a lot of amenities, including good transportation, a world class university, and excellent schools, and a lot of people want to live here, said Ms. Flax. The demand for housing here is expected to continue, and it will continue to push up the cost of housing.

Income Not Keeping Pace With Housing Costs        

 Housing prices and rents are increasing at a faster pace than incomes, particularly for those at the lower spectrum of the income scale.

Between 2000 and 2013, the median value of homes in Evanston increased from $229,500 to $353,200, or 54%, according to the 2009-13 American Community Survey (ACS). During that same period, the median rents increased from $813 a month  to $1,162, or 43%. These increases surpassed the increase in household median income in Evanston which increased from $56,335 to $67,038, or 19%.

“Because increases in housing costs outpaced income gains, housing in Evanston became less affordable during the last decade,” says the City’s CPlan. The decline is dramatic.

According to a 2013 report published by the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) in accordance with the Illinois Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, Evanston had total of 4,434 affordable housing units in 2011 – including both rental apartments and owner-occupied homes. This amounted to 15.4% of Evanston’s total year-round housing units.

In 2004, IHDA computed the number of affordable housing units in Evanston using 2000 Census data. Cami Freeman, IHDA’s spokesperson, told the RoundTable that IHDA determined that Evanston had a total of 7,730 housing units that were affordable in 2000, compared to 4,434 in 2011.

Evanston thus lost 3,296 affordable housing units, or 43% of its affordable housing units, between 2000 and 2011.

The methodology IHDA used in its calculations for the two periods is the same, but the median incomes and housing data, of course, changed. For 2000, IHDA used the 2000 Chicago Metropolitan Area Household Income (AMHI) of $51,690. For 2011, IHDA used the 2011 AMHI of $61,045.

While income rose, there was a sharp decline in the number of apartment units renting at less than $1,000 per month, which is a major factor in the decline of affordable housing here. In 2000, there were 10,764 apartment units renting for less than $1,000. By 2011, the number dropped to 4,604.

The above chart shows that the number of apartments renting below $1,000 a month in Evanston declined significantly between 2000 and 2011. Source: “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choices,” Evanston (April 2014).


IHDA’s Calculations for 2011                

Under the Illinois Affordable Housing Act, IHDA is required to determine the number of housing units that low- to moderate-income people can afford to rent or purchase in each municipality in the State, including Evanston. If less than 10% of a municipality’s housing is affordable, then the municipality must plan for and produce affordable housing.

To be regarded as “affordable,” the cost of housing must not exceed 30% of a household’s before-tax income, which is a standard not only used by the Illinois Affordable Housing Act, but also by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For apartment rentals, IHDA determined the number of apartments in Evanston that a household whose income was at 60% of the 2011 AMHI ($36,627) could afford to rent. Assuming these households could afford to pay 30% of their income toward housing, these households could afford to pay $916 in rent per month. Using data available through the 2008-11 ACC, IHDA determined there was a total of 3,585 apartments in Evanston being rented at less than $916 a month – or that were affordable to a household earning 60% of the AMHI.

IDHA’s data does not reflect the size of the apartment that could be rented for less than $916 per month. The City’s CPlan says to this point: “A household with an income of 60% of the area median income can afford only an efficiency or one-bedroom unit, and larger units are unaffordable, restricting housing for larger families and families with children.”

IHDA also determined the number of housing units in Evanston that a household whose income was at 80% of the AMHI ($48,836) could afford to purchase. IHDA determined that a household with an income of $48,836 could afford a home valued at $146,372 (taking into account mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, utilities, etc.). Using data available through the 2008-11 ACS, IHDA determined that there was a total of 849 homes in Evanston with a value less than $146,372 – or that were affordable to a household earning 80% of AMHI.

It is likely that many of these affordable units were condominiums.

When it comes to purchasing homes, “It’s almost impossible for a family with an income below 80% of AMHI to buy a home in Evanston, without financial assistance,” Ms. Flax told the RoundTable. “That’s just a reality.”

Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite provided the RoundTable with a more ground-level view. “I’ve heard from working class families that the housing stock in Evanston continues to be very expensive for people with young families. And if working class families are struggling to find good housing, then how does that translate to our lower-income residents?

“That’s really where I hear the majority of the concerns coming from. Younger moms, single-family households continue to struggle to find affordable housing where they’re not paying more than 30% of their income toward housing. It’s not that there isn’t affordable housing out there. There isn’t enough supply.”

When asked if persons starting out as teachers or policemen could find affordable housing in Evanston, Alderman Braithwaite said, “The biggest challenge is not necessarily that they can’t afford to live here, but is there enough inventory? I think it’s a fair statement to say there isn’t enough inventory.”

Sue Loellbach, director of development of Connections, told the RoundTable, “It is really untenable for someone at minimum wage or below 30% of the area’s median household income to live in Evanston unless they live in subsidized housing or get a roommate. They’re living in Evanston, but are not doing well. They are doubled up with other families, couch surfing, living in substandard housing, cutting way back on necessities, and some just have to move. And a lot of these people are working full-time in food service, as crossing-guards, or working in our stores. They are people we need in Evanston.”

The above chart illustrates the decline in affordable housing units between 2000 and 2011, as calculated by the Illinois Housing Development Authority. In making the calculations for 2000, Cami Freeman, spokesperson for IHDA, told the RoundTable that IHDA used the 2000 Chicago Metroplitan Area Household Income of $51,680. In making its calculations for 2011, IHDA used the 2011 Chicago Metropolitan Area Household Income of $61,045. The methodology used in making the calculations is summarized in the text of the article.


40% of Residents Are Cost-Burdened

Another way to look at housing affordability is to look at how much current residents are paying for housing as a percentage of their gross income. Under HUD guidelines, a household paying between 30% and 49% of its income on housing is “cost burdened.” A household paying more than 50% of its income on housing is viewed as “severely cost burdened.”

Using data available through the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, HUD determines the percentage of households in certain municipalities that are cost burdened and severely cost burdened. The City published the results for Evanston in its CPlan.

The data shows that many residents in Evanston stretch financially to live here. Overall, almost 40% of all households are cost burdened or severely cost burdened. Broken down, 18.5% of all households are “cost burdened,” and 19.6% are “severely cost burdened.”

As might be expected, the proportionate burden is much greater on low- to moderate-income households, defined as those with incomes less than 80% of the Household Area Median Family Income, or $57,920 using 2011 data. In that year there were 9,830 low- to moderate-income households in Evanston, 86% of whom were either cost burdened or severely cost burdened. Broken down, 51% of these households were cost burdened and 35% were severely cost burdened. It appears that less than 32% of these households may be Northwestern University students.

When housing costs eat up more than 30% of a household’s income, it puts a strain on the household, particularly for low- to moderate-income households.

“If you’re spending more than 30% of your total income on housing, how much can you spend on transportation, food, medicine, clothing – just basics,” said Ms. Flax, “… or to accommodate for emergencies which everybody has,” continued Mr. Muenzer. “You’re never going to be able to build savings for when your car breaks down or there’s an illness. And that’s where you start having devastating effects.”

“When we look at homelessness,” Ms. Flax said, “it can be due to an illness or the lack of a vehicle.”

“Once a family is going beyond what HUD considers to be an affordable or a sustainable percentage of their income going towards housing, it means people are making choices between a rent payment or a mortgage payment versus paying for food or a car repair or other very important things,” said Mr. Anthony. “There’s many studies linking affordable rent and mortgage payments to better health care for children and better school performance of children. When they’re paying too much for housing, they’re making critical adjustments in other areas.”

The above chart illustrates the percentages of all Evanston residents and the percentages of low- and moderate-income Evansont residents who were cost burdened and severely cost burdened in 2011. The data was prepared by HUD and reported in the City’s CPlan.


 What Is Being Done, Is It Enough?

 The decline in affordable housing is on the City’s radar. In December 2009, the Evanston Affordable Housing Task Force issued its report and recommendations to preserve affordable housing in the City. On a related issue, in April 2012, the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness issued its report and recommendations to address homelessness.

Mr. Muenzer said, “We recognize the data is indicating that we’re losing affordable housing units at a fairly rapid rate and that’s a concern to us. We want to make sure that the community is diverse in a variety of ways. Income and housing type is certainly an important part of the community’s diversity.”

The City has taken many creative steps in an attempt to address the issue, which have generated several hundred affordable housing units in the last ten years. While this helps, it falls far short of offsetting the loss of 3,000 affordable housing units between 2000 and 2011.

In 2007, City Council adopted an “Inclusionary Housing Ordinance” that applies to new developments with 25 or more owner-occupied units. Under the ordinance, a specified percentage of the new housing units must be affordable to households whose incomes are less than 80% of AMI and 100% of AMI. In lieu of these set asides, a developer may pay a $40,000 fee per unit into a housing fund.

The City staff memo dated July 17, 2014, says the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance has not resulted in the development of any affordable housing units or the contribution of any fees into the housing fund. In that memo, the Housing and Homelessness Commission and City staff recommended that the ordinance be amended to apply to developments of rental units and condo conversions. That recommendation is now pending before a City Council Committee.

In 2010, the City secured an $18 million grant under the Federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2). The City used the funds to purchase 133 foreclosed properties on the south and west sides of the City, rehab them and return them to the market at affordable prices.

Subsequently, the City obtained funds to develop townhomes and flats for 32 households on the City’s west side. The project, called Emerson Square, was built with quality building materials and preserves open spaces. Ms. Flax said the development is subsidized to provide housing to 28 households with incomes below 60% of the AMI and four households with incomes below 30% of the AMI.

Mr. Muenzer said Emerson Square was a very complicated project from a variety of different levels. The number of affordable units it provides “may be a drop in the bucket,” he said, “but it also shows the initiative and commitment of the City. But, you know what, it’s 32 units, and it’s the right thing to do and we’re going to do it right. And that’s the kind of thing we’ll continue to do. But we can only do so much in the face of a market that dictates so much.”

In November 2013, the City partnered with CPAH to secure a $1.5 million grant to acquire and rehabilitate 10 foreclosed properties here using its land trust model. Under its model, CPAH retains title to the land in a land trust, and sells the building to a low- to moderate-income household. Because CPAH retains the title, the property will remain affordable housing in perpetuity. The cost to the buyer is less because the buyer is not paying for the land.

Mr. Anthony said, “The strategy that we use is to increase the stock of affordable housing and to build an infrastructure of housing that will stay affordable in perpetuity. … It takes time to build that stock. The question is how do you do that at scale?”

“We’re not saying it would take care of the whole problem, but it would certainly go a long way to help to address the affordable housing shortage.”

In July 2013, City Council approved a $500,000 grant of federal HOME funds to Connections for the Homeless for a Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program. The funds will be used to provide stable housing for 20-30 families with children, and also provide job training and educational supports to help them become self-sufficient. Mr. Muenzer said there is a growing recognition that a housing subsidy is not enough, that additional supportive services are essential.

In addition, the City’s Housing Rehab program provides funds each year to help between 10 and 20 low- and moderate-income households to rehab or perform maintenance work on their homes. It helps people, many of whom are seniors, to stay in the community, said Ms. Flax.

Another small but important effort is the Geometry in Construction program at Evanston Township High School. Last year, students, staff and community volunteers built a home which was moved to a lot in the City’s west side to be used for affordable housing. Title to the land is held by CPAH. A second home is under construction at ETHS and is scheduled to be relocated to a lot on Dodge Avenue.

“There’s a lot of different tools and we have to look at all of them, because we’re never going to solve everything with a single method because there are so many housing needs,” said Ms. Flax.

When asked if the City would be able to preserve affordable housing in light of the market forces at work here, Mr. Muenzer said, “I would like to think that because of the proactive efforts of the City of Evanston, that we in the long run will be able to at least maintain a significant percentage of housing that we could define as affordable.”

Ald. Braithwaite said, “The challenge that we all have, and this is for all cities, there’s a scarcity of public resources. The dollars that are available continue to shrink.

“Even with shrinking resources at the federal and state level, affordable housing continues to be one of my priorities and it is also a top priority for City Council and staff. We will continue to be vigilant to search out any and all opportunities to provide more affordable housing inventory for our residents to maintain our diversity, and when I say diversity I want to clarify I mean racial and economic.”

 Yet, the number of affordable units is expected to continue to diminish in the coming years, according to the City’s CPlan.

Seniors on Fixed Incomes

Of the single-family households in Evanston, 3,159 are 65 years old or over. The number is expected to increase in the coming years.  Increasing rents and property taxes presents challenges for seniors and others who are on fixed incomes. The City’s draft Consolidated Plan 2015-19 says,  “Long-time homeowners living on fixed income, primarily seniors, are increasingly at risk of displacement because they can no longer afford to pay rising property taxes, utilities and afford to maintain their homes.”___________________HUD’s Calculations of Affordable Housing

HUD calculated the number of affordable housing units that households at various income levels could afford to purchase in Evanston, and the results are reported in the City’s draft Consolidated Plan for 2015-19 (CPlan). HUD does so for families with incomes at 30%, 50% and 80% of the HUD Area Median Family Income (HAMFI). HAMFI differs from the Chicago Metropolitan Area Household Median Income because it is the median income of families and excludes one-person households and households of unrelated persons. For fiscal year 2014, HAMFI for the Chicago Metropolitan Area was $72,400.

According to the CPlan:

• A family earning 30% of HAMFI, or $21,720, could afford to rent 460 apartments in the City.

• A family earning 50% of HAMFI, or $36,200, could afford to rent 1,380 apartment units and to purchase 170 housing units in the City – or a total of 1,550 affordable housing units.

• A family earning 80% of HAMFI, or $57,920, could afford to rent 6,270 apartment units and to purchase 1,020 housing units in Evanston – or a total of 7,290 housing units.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...