Neighbors packed a room at the Erie Health Center on April 25 to hear details of a possible affordable housing development to be built at Dempster Street and Pitner Avenue on the City’s west side. Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, along with City staff and members of Housing Opportunities for Women (HOW) described the project and addressed concerns brought up at a February ward meeting. While the development is still in the “conceptual phase,” neighbors at the meeting made it clear that they were not excited about the prospect of the new building in their neighborhood, with one resident claiming, “This is war.”

The proposed three-story brick-and-glass building would have 16 one- and two-bedroom units and include a 16-space parking lot and landscaping.  HOW offices would occupy the first floor. Currently a single-family home is located on the private lot. That house would be demolished, said Michael Newman, the project architect who showed attendees sketches of the property.

Infrastructure Concerns Addressed

Sarah Flax and Savannah Clement of the City’s Community Development division addressed neighbors’ concerns about parking, traffic, and infrastructure.  A parking study conducted by the City showed 42-55 of parking spots are available in the area at any given time.

“That’s not true,” a resident suggested.  Others objected to the timeframe for which the study was conducted. 

“We can do other studies,” said Ald. Braithwaite. He suggested residents schedule another time for an additional study. “You tell me when you want it done, and I and the City staff will be there.”

Other findings show that Dempster Street is designed to accommodate traffic, and there would be minimal impact from this project. Capacity of water mains and sewers were found to be adequate for the additional units.  The project would be required to provide storm water retention and commercial garbage removal.  Some neighbors expressed concerns about excess trash and rodents in the area. A 311 check did not reveal significant rodent calls, said Ald. Braithwaite, who encouraged attendees to use the City’s contact system moving forward if they see excess trash or nuisances. 

HOW and Why on Affordable Housing

Britt Shawver, CEO of HOW, gave an overview of HOW services and the need for local affordable housing options.  The goal of HOW is to find permanent solutions to homelessness and break the cycle of poverty.  Since 1983, HOW has provided support services to empower program participants to gain housing stability and economic independence. 

“There are a lot of ways housing insecurity happens,” said Ms. Shawver. “We get calls every month from Evanston people being displaced.”  City statistics show that 13% of Evanston residents have incomes below the federal poverty line. There are 400 homeless students in Evanston schools.

This project “would be an Evanston solution” to help local families not fall through the cracks, Ms. Shawver said. 

All applicants for housing through HOW undergo a rigorous screening process. They must be able to “financially perform” or they do not qualify. Monthly residency checks and an onsite management company help empower and support residents.  Any who do not meet qualification criteria are removed from the program.

Zoning Issues

Several residents asked why the lot in their neighborhood was being considered for the project. “It was a space marketed to us” said Ms. Shawver, speaking of the real estate broker for the private resident who brought the available lot to the attention of HOW.

City zoning regulations provide the size and type of structure that can be built on a piece of land. The Pitner/ Dempster lot is in an R5 Zone.

An R5 building can reach a maximum of five stories or 50 feet and 23 units. The HOW project is currently designed at three stories with 16 units. Thus, the proposed project is below the maximum height and number of units permitted under the zoning code. The developer, however, may nonetheless need to obtain City approval to proceed with the project or certain aspects of the project. 

“We are hoping to do this with the cooperation of the neighborhood” said Ms. Shawver, which is why HOW approached the City for input before applying for funding to purchase the land and moving forward with the process.

Other Projects

Residents asked about other affordable housing efforts in Evanston.  “Why are these projects only in black neighborhoods?” asked one attendee. “Why isn’t affordable housing scattered throughout the City?”  Another resident expressed concern that the project would be a “perfect breeding ground” for gangs and drugs.

Staff described the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which requires 10% of the units in new residential, developments to be affordable dwelling units, available to low- and moderate-income households at below market prices. Affordable units will be available to households at or below 100% of Area Median Income (AMI). One-fourth of the affordable dwelling units must be priced so they are affordable to households under 80% of AMI, in developments with 25 or more owner-occupied dwelling units. Developers may pay a fee of $75,000 or $100,000 in lieu of providing affordable dwelling units on the site. The fee varies depending on the location of the project. Funds will go into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to develop.

“There is a broad need the City is trying to address,” said Ms. Clement.

Next Steps

HOW has applied for funding through the Illinois Housing Development Authority and is waiting on the status of their request.  Ald. Braithwaite made a commitment to the residents to continue to work on local issues of concern like parking congestion, excess trash in the ally, car-wash operations, and concerns about drug activity in the area. If funding is secured and the project moves forward, there will be other opportunities to discuss this, he said.

Other residents indicated that if the project advanced, there would be protests.