Evanston City Council showed zero interest in halting the rapid gentrification of Evanston when they voted to approve the 15-story, 273-unit mega luxury Albion development on one of Evanston’s few traditional and transitional streets. They made a mockery of the cause of affordable housing, of the Evanston Inclusionary Ordinance and of our zoning laws.
Albion is the 8th luxury rental apartment building approved since 2013, with 1,354 expensive units added since then, and 318 more high-end units being proposed.
Evanston is a beautiful city in many ways; the population, the lakefront, the architecture, the trees, and its proximity to Chicago. However, what makes Evanston stand apart from neighboring lakefront suburbs is our diversity. Evanston has the largest percentage of black and Latino residents in suburbs in this area. And over a third of Evanston’s residents are low-income.
Evanston has lost 40% of its affordable housing between 2004 and 2013 while the growth in high-end rental properties increases at an alarming rate. As a result, the diverse character of Evanston is in jeopardy. The black population has declined by approximately 7% over the last 10 years. The lack of affordable housing in Evanston is a serious issue and addressing it must become top priority.
But with the dwindling supply of affordable housing units, our City Council has allowed one of the largest property developers in the U.S. to skirt Evanston’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (IHO) which requires that “10% of the total number of dwelling units be affordable dwelling units.” Albion is located within a transit oriented development (TOD), designated to allow low income population better access to public transportation, where “50% of these units must be leased to households earning up to 60% AMI (Average Median Income) and 50% of the units leased to households at 50% AMI.” Instead of providing the required number of affordable units, a developer may choose to pay a “fee in lieu” of $100,000 per unit to the city.
The Albion meets none of these requirements. Instead of 27 affordable units at 50%-60% AMI, Albion will provide a paltry three units at 50% AMI and six units at 60% AMI, (and six units at 80% is below the IHO requirements for a TOD), and is not being required to pay the “fee in lieu” on the remaining units. So, instead of 27 units at 50%-60% AMI, Evanston is getting nine units, most of which are not suitable for families, when we need as many housing units as possible for our low-income population. That’s a lot of “relief” from our IHO for the $85 billion Sammons Enterprises, which will pay itself a 17% return, when half of that would be satisfactory to most developers and the bank lending them the capital.
With the gentrification downtown and the reduction in the number of affordable housing units for families, low-income Evanston residents will continue to be excluded from the housing market, and continue to leave the city and move to less-expensive communities. Those in the black and Latino population that can still afford to live in Evanston are becoming more and more concentrated in a smaller number of neighborhoods, further and further away from the downtown area and from public transportation, and from social and community activities which enriches everyone’s lives. In other words, developments like Albion are undermining the integration that comes with a dispersed, affordable housing stock, and are creating a more segregated community, with little hope of a reversal if the City Council continues to blindly permit luxury rentals without properly addressing the need for an adequate supply of affordable housing.
Everyone says they love a diverse community, but the City Council is not listening to the evidence that building expensive rentals lead to higher property taxes, and higher rental rates, excluding more and more low-income people from the housing market. Over the last 10 years, rents in Evanston have gone up 30%, and buildings like Albion are why, but average income has only increased by 7%. Gentrification has occurred in this way all over the country.
Developers with more creative schemes which provide more affordable housing in human-scale buildings, not mega-luxury developments like Albion, are not attracted to Evanston because they perceive such buildings to be all the City Council wants. This development narrative needs to change.
Evanston can put forth a practical commitment to diversity, equity and progressivism by improving the inclusionary housing ordinance to prescribe rental rates that are slightly above and below AMI, to maintain affordability all over Evanston. Plenty of developers would come forward if the City Council made this a clearly-stated goal.
Diversity in Evanston is inextricably linked to an increase in affordable housing and ending the further gentrification of our city. These two efforts cannot be separated if we truly believe in supporting a diverse and inclusive Evanston.
Ms. Kelly and Ms. Connolly are members of Evanstonians for Responsible Planning.