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After advancing through several steps in the approval process, City Council denied a request to provide gap funding for an affordable housing project to be built at 2215 Dempster St. by Housing Options for Women (HOW). Concerns about building size and infrastructure, mixed with doubt about the extent to which Evanston residents would actually be housed by the project, appeared to ultimately defeat the plan.

 The Council vote was 5-3, with Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward; Ann Rainey, 8th Waard; and Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, voting no; and Aldermen Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward; Don Wilson, 4th Ward; and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, voting yes; Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, was not present. Prior to this Sept. 25 Council vote, the project was recommended for advancement by the City’s Design and Project Review Committee and the Housing and Homelessness Commission.  

At the City’s Planning and Development Committee meeting held just prior to the Council meeting, aldermen spoke both for and against the project. Ald. Braithwaite spoke first, saying neighbors have been consistent in expressing concerns with the building’s size and about neighborhood infrastructure. “No one approached me in favor of this project,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of affordable housing. This is a good project, but just not a good place for it.”

Several neighbors voiced concerns to the Committee about the building size, parking, and property values. One resident said she was concerned the project would add “conflict and congestion” to the community. Others expressed concerns about “segregation” and said affordable housing is “not being distributed fairly” in the City. Darleen Cannon said the project has “taken on a life of its own” and has been “misleading.” Former First Ward Alderman Delores Holmes said it’s a “wonderful project, but in the wrong location.”

Several people spoke in favor of the project. HOW’s clients talked about their positive experiences. HOW’s Board members spoke of HOW’s “excellent support services.” The League of Women Voters Evanston and Connections for the Homeless/Joining Forces asked for Council support of the project. 

Savanah Clement, the City’s Housing Policy and Planning Analyst, gave an overview of the 16-unit project. She said it is being proposed for an R5 zone so the size is “allowed by right,” there is a 12-foot setback, parking for each unit, and a water retention system that will improve the neighborhood. She said City staff recommended the Council approve $550,000 in gap funding, which is 10% of total development budget of $5,447,437. The City’s share of the funding would be from federal HOME funds and the City’s Affordable Housing Fund. The total cost per unit would be $340,465, and the City’s investment would be $34,375 per unit.

Ms. Clement showed several slides with Evanston housing statistics divided by census tracts. The slides show the area containing the proposed HOW project contains six units of “income-restricted rental units,” one of the lowest concentrations in the City. In addition, the neighborhood has the lowest number of affordable housing units, at 333. The census tract also has a higher percentage of owner-occupied housing at 67%, versus 55% Citywide.

A sticking point for many came down to whether or not Evanston residents would get a local preference to live in the proposed building. Because funding for the project would come from HUD and the Illinois Housing Development Authority, priority for the housing must first be given to those on regional and state wait lists. Those lists give first dibs to those who live or work within 12 miles of the available housing. 

Sarah Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants Administrator, said there are quite likely Evanstonians already on the waiting list. She also said that in her experience, sites that give a strong Evanston preference do not allow for a preference for those who were in Evanston, but were priced out.

Ald. Rue Simmons said since the HOW units are small, she was not sure they actually met the needs of families and that she was “uncomfortable spending money without a plan.”

“The compelling thing I keep hearing is about people,” said Ald. Wilson. “Someone has come to us with over a million dollars to house women and children. I struggle with the money and it’s a lot, but it’s only a small portion” of the total.

Ultimately, the Planning and Development Committee members voted 4-2 to send the project to Council, with Alds. Simmons and Fiske voting no and Alds. Revelle, Wilson, Wynne, and Rainey voting yes.

Once moving to the City Council, however, the proposal to provide funding for the project was defeated with no further discussion. Alderman Rainey asked that the issue be revisited after the Council has a larger discussion on affordable housing at its Oct. 30 meeting.