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City Council’s efforts to tackle Evanston’s affordable housing crisis barely got off the ground on Sept. 18, as a looming lengthy executive session meeting, extensive citizen comment, and a presentation by City staff requiring five different presenters pushed the topic far too late for robust and thorough discussion.

Council voted to continue the matter until Oct. 30, a special meeting at which the aldermen can discuss ideas and concepts amongst themselves without PowerPoint presentations from staff.  “The Council is never able to have a full-blown discussion,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.  Dedicating a meeting to discussion without presentation may afford such an opportunity

A suggestion seeking to eliminate public input at that meeting was rejected. “We can’t not have citizen comment,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward.

 Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, asked to move the special meeting to the aldermanic library to permit “discussion around a table – a real working meeting.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said City staff would prepare a “white paper” ahead of the meeting incorporating ideas and suggestions for strategy, some to come from the Sept. 18 PowerPoint. But the paper would not be presented or introduced – just provided to Council before the meeting.

Prior to the presentation, citizens lined up to present their arguments, concerns, and ideas. Helen Gagel, Patricia Sidler and Susan Cherco of the Age-Friendly Task Force addressed Council from their task force’s perspective. “Housing, especially affordable housing, is a primary concern” of the task force, said Ms. Gagel. “We are not alone. [Cities everywhere] are trying to figure this out.”

Sue Loellbach, the Director of Advocacy for Connections for the Homeless, called affordable housing “the key to many of the issues that have been under discussion here at City Council” over the past several months, such as the achievement gap in schools, economic development, youth violence, and other issues addressed by Evanston’s various non-profit groups. A good, safe home can help solve all such issues, she said.

Birch Burghardt of Interfaith Action Evanston, emphasized the need to spread affordable housing throughout Evanston, “not just in the Second and Fifth wards.” She also called on Council to create a “plan for the use of the affordable housing fund.” Changes to the Inclusionary Housing ordinance permit developers to pay into the affordable housing fund in lieu of providing on-site affordable units, but Council has not yet directed staff as to how to spend the fund. To date, expenditures have been on an ad-hoc, by-request basis.

Several others, including former City Clerk Rodney Greene, called for the elimination of the “payment-in-lieu” provision entirely.

 Chris Kruger, who identified himself as “an activist,” said, “I want a transformative plan… I don’t want a museum. I don’t want a Henry Ford village.”

Darlene Cannon said she agreed with the elimination of the payment-in-lieu program and spreading affordable housing units throughout the City, but said she opposed a proposed 16-unit affordable-housing project at the corner of Pitner Avenue and Dempster Street. Ray Freidman also protested the 16-unit building, a proposal from Housing Opportunities for Women that has not yet appeared before the full Council.

The project “does not belong on the corner of Pitner and Dempster,” said Mr. Friedman. (See story on page 16.)

Gail Schechter, of the State Housing Board of Appeals, said because of her position, “you might say I am the official affordable-housing advocate in the State of Illinois.” She called for a policy promoting “housing for all populations that does not serve to separate,” that ameliorates the regional problem, that does not displace any current residents, and that remains in place and does not “sunset in 15 years.”

Tina Paden called for assistance for landlords who provide affordable housing now. She said her family had been providing affordable units for up to 53 residents for years. “We have asked for help … and we have never gotten any assistance,” she said, and as a result her family would be getting out of the affordable housing business. “We can no longer take” it, she said.

Given the realities of housing costs, Michelle Hayes said people like nursing assistants, teachers and custodians cannot afford to live in Evanston. “By and large, these are caregivers … very good people, and I am privileged to know them… the soul of Evanston. If we lose them, we are going to lose who we are,” she said.

City staff then presented a PowerPoint introduced by Community Development Director Johanna Leonard, augmented by Director of Health Evonda Thomas-Smith, and then added-to by Housing and Grants Administrator Sarah Flax, emphasized by Savannah Clement, the City’s Housing Policy and Planning Analyst, then further discussed by Audrey Thompson, the City’s Long Term Care Ombudsmen before Ms. Leonard returned to the lectern to conclude with a proposed seven-point action plan.

“The housing market is very dynamic,” said Ms. Leonard, requiring the City to be “nimble” and willing to change directions.

Proposals include revising the City code to allow more housing, increasing affordable units within market rate developments, expanding revenue for the affordable housing fund, creating paths to home ownership, preserving existing affordable stock, expanding programs to overcome barriers, and promoting healthy housing and neighborhoods.

 At the end of the presentation, Ald. Rainey asked, “When are we going to have the conversation? We need to have a discussion, [but] not tonight.” It was already approaching 10 p.m.

“We needed to have an introductory presentation,” explained City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. “This is really just meant as food for thought.”

Several aldermen set the stage for the coming, larger conversation. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, took the lead. “This [topic] comes up in an interesting context, because it comes up when a number of projects are in the works,” he said, referring to the building proposed for the Library lot, the Chicago/Davis high rise, the Albion proposal for Sherman Avenue between Grove and Lake streets, and the Northlight Theater proposal just north of the Sherman/Church intersection.

“Doing things the same way we’ve been doing them … hasn’t worked,” said Ald. Wilson. “We live in a segregated community, and it is beyond time to start thinking about doing things differently.” He then decried the people who denigrate renters or students. Whenever anyone references “those people,” he said, “move on to the next person.”

Regarding the current proposed projects, Ald. Wilson said, “When a building goes up on an empty lot, that’s not driving people out of Evanston.” The library Lot project, the Chicago/Davis building, and the Sherman-Albion proposal each involve empty lots or non-residential lots.

Ald. Wilson also took a moment to address the inclusionary housing ordinance, a measure he opposed when it passed. Forcing developers to include affordable units or pay a fee-in-lieu necessarily leads to bigger buildings, he said, in order to make developments economically feasible while complying with the ordinance.

“What I want to see are policies based on empowerment, not on charity,” continued Ald. Wilson, “policies designed to promote home ownership [allowing the building of] equity over periods of time.”  He called equity in real estate one of the “primary ways people are able to develop wealth.”

Promoting the perpetuation of the current way of doing things is “promoting institutional racism,” he said. He then point to “slide number nine” in the PowerPoint, showing a segregated Chicagoland. “I am not going to promote anything that perpetuates slide number nine.”

“I stand with Alderman Wilson – empowerment, not charity,” said Ald. Rue Simmons. She called on Council to meet and “come up with an action plan.” Included should be teaching financial literacy. “Residents are ready” to purchase homes and initiate the “first opportunity for wealth-building.”

The City also needs to be “very intentional about scattering the affordable housing” around the City,” she said. “Everyone’s said it. I hope it’s something we can do.” She also called on the City to come up with ways to assist landlords like Ms. Paden. “She is providing subsidized housing for 53 Evanston residents,” said Ald. Rue Simmons. The City needs to “figure out a way to give her support.”  

Evanston should be more proactive in keeping people in their homes, said Ald. Rue Simmons. “When we see a resident in danger of losing a home, do some outreach. We must [act] urgently,” she said. Notices of impending tax sales are an example, she said.  

“It’s really complicated,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “So I am looking forward to that discussion.

Council will reconvene to delve deeply into the many aspects of a comprehensive affordable housing plan on Oct. 30, beginning at 6 p.m. The public will be invited to address Council before discussion begins, but staff will not present information. One meeting will likely not be enough time to cover the entire issue.