Some neighbors oppose this three-story, 16-unit development by Housing Opportunities for Women at 2215 Dempster St. Photo from City of Evanston packet

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A proposal for a three-story, 16-unit affordable housing structure to be built at 2215 Dempster St. cleared another hurdle earlier this month when the City’s Housing, Homelessness and Human Relations Commission (HHHRC) voted unanimously to recommend the project for City funding. The proposal will now go before the City’s Planning and Development Committee on Sept. 25 with the recommendation to approve a City loan for $550,000 in gap funding requested by Housing Opportunities for Women (HOW), the group proposing the project. The next step is to gain City Council approval for the funding.

So many residents came to the Sept. 7 HHHRC meeting that it was moved to the larger Council Chambers to accommodate the crowd. 

“I’m grateful for the feedback and energy of this community,” began Britt Shawver, CEO of HOW, in her presentation to the Commission. 

Ms. Shawver and architect Michael Newman of Shed Studio reviewed the current plan for the building, which has been revised multiple times to address concerns brought up by neighbors and the City.

The original plan was for a five-story structure, the largest allowed in the R5 zoned lot. The building’s plan was reduced to three stories to “try to find a happy medium” with neighbors who expressed concern that the structure was too big for the neighborhood, said Mr. Newman. The type of brick proposed for the outside was also changed to be more visually appealing. Two of the units were made fully accessible at the request of the City, and the entire building is now “visitable,” meaning that a wheelchair can navigate through any of the apartments.  A system for collecting and more slowly draining water run-off on the lot was added, which will “reduce flooding in neighboring houses,” an issue of concern for some in the area. The building is also set 12 feet back from the street, more than the three-foot setback required. 

Other points of concern arose during the public comment portion of the HHHRC meeting. Many neighbors said they believe the City is purposely putting affordable housing units in “minority neighborhoods.” Others said the City did not properly notify neighbors about the proposed project. Ray Friedman said that the $5.5 million total project cost could buy 27 single-family homes in the area where houses run about $200,000 each. Jared Davis, who lives across the street from the proposed building, said that real estate agents he spoke to told him “a project that size with that density will drop property values” in the area.

Many comments of support were also expressed. A former HOW client said that without HOW, she would not be in the process of buying her own home. The project is “necessary” she said; “HOW’s intentions are good.”

Adrian Willoughby said there are not many locations or vacant lots available for affordable housing in Evanston. While HOW could have communicated sooner, it “has done a lot to please the neighbors.”

Christy Smith-Hall, a HOW employee, pointed out that if HOW does not get the property, “another business will,” and that they can make their building bigger.

Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless said that the project would not decrease property values but would “make a stronger community.”

But will the project provide housing for Evanston residents?

Alderman and Commission Member Eleanor Revelle asked about “the benefit for Evanston” if the City provides the funding requested from HOW.

“The way things are currently structured, the funding we are requesting tonight would not allow an Evanston set-aside,” said Ms. Shawver, “but would strengthen the project.” 

A recently received subsidy that HOW obtained from the Illinois Housing Development Authority requires the project be included in the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI) housing pool. Through that, income eligible households within a 12-mile radius of the funded site would be included on a list of potential tenants, and people outside the Evanston borders could potentially be offered the housing before a resident.

“Up until getting the packet, I was under the impression there was to be a preference for Evanston [residents],” said Commission Chair Ellen Cushing.

That changed when the subsidy was received, said Ms. Shawver. That piece is “new for everyone, because the subsidy just came in.”

City staff did not know about the change until about a week earlier said Savannah Clement, the City’s Housing Policy and Planning Analyst. “That was our initial goal, to include an Evanston preference, but we didn’t know what was going to happen with the funding.”

Sarah Flax, the City’s Division Manager, Housing and Grants, explained that the Regional Housing Initiative gives people more choice in housing and allows projects to be better funded through the pool of money in the RHI fund. The prospective tenant list includes “regional preference; they don’t break it down by municipality.” She said that the RHI process has been “written up as a creative way to serve housing needs.” While the prospective tenant list would include those in a 12-mile radius, many on it would “already be in Evanston or live nearby and work in Evanston,” said Ms. Flax. There will inevitably be some on the waitlist that when offered housing in Evanston will turn it down, added Ms. Flax, and the spot will go to the next on the list.

“The way you refer makes a difference,” said Ms. Flax. “We watch the wait lists and when a list opens, we make sure all the local social service agencies are referring people to that list.”

Funding Details

The unanimous vote by the Commission advances a recommendation for gap funding in the amount of $550,000 to HOW for the Dempster project. The new funding commitment from IHDA totals $4,850,000.

Meeting materials state, “Staff recommends City financing in the form of two deferred loans, 1) $100,000 from the City’s HOME Investment Partnerships grant, and 2) $450,000 from the Affordable Housing Fund.

Neighbor Reaction

Mr. Davis, who lives across the street from the proposed project, told the RoundTable that neighbors were “surprised” by the vote. “Now two different committees have expressed significant concerns with the project but were willing to pass it along,” he said. The project was billed to neighbors at the beginning as one that would “be filled with Evanston’s homeless, with people from the YWCA and Connections for the Homeless. Now they say it will be regional, that there is a good chance Evanston will get an advantage but that is a big if.” Mr. Davis said this uncertainty about who will be selected to live in the building, together with the building’s size, are the neighbors’ biggest concerns.

Mending the Fences

Commissioner Kyle Lauterhahn and Commission Vice Chair Geri Palmer asked how tenants in this project would integrate into the neighborhood. “With the expressed opposition, what is the plan for mitigating or resolving that,” asked Ms. Palmer.

“I am grateful for the question,” said Ms. Shawver. “I would like to have continued dialogue. Some of us have talked of [the neighbors] starting a garden together or doing some sort of community-building activity, but we want to be an active, strong neighbor. We’d like to participate in community watch efforts. We want to be a strong neighbor.”