Evanston City Council’s efforts to address an admitted and perplexing affordable housing problem continued on Jan. 8, with discussions at the Administration and Public Works and Planning and Development Committees. Topics included an overall work plan, the proposed Evanston rental assistance program, assistance for landlords renting affordable units, homebuyer assistance, accessory dwelling units (coach houses), occupancy limits, and vacation rental licenses.
No concrete steps were taken, though City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said action items should appear at the Jan. 29 meeting. In October 2017, Council set the Jan. 29 meeting as a dedicated quarterly affordable housing meeting.
The Administration and Public Works Committee began the discussion by taking up a proposal put forth by Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey that would provide rental assistance to up to 30 Evanston families. The program would be highly flexible, serving income-qualified families at between 30% and 80% of the area median income (AMI).
“The only way to solve the affordable housing problem is with money,” said Ald. Rainey. She argued that forcing developers to add affordable units to high-rise buildings downtown was the wrong approach. “You do not want to be shoving poor families into these downtown high-rises.”
Rather, she said, the City should develop a program to subsidize rent and allow qualified families to rent available, existing units throughout the City. She cited landlord Tina Paden, whose family operates about 15 affordable units across the City, as an example of current landlords willing to work with voucher programs.
The program, dubbed “Rainey Rental” by Ms. Paden, would be funded initially by the City’s Affordable Housing (AH) fund. The City’s grants administrator Sarah Flax said the AH fund has a current balance of about $700,000, some of which has use restrictions. More funding is anticipated as new buildings are constructed. The ordinance approving the 831 Emerson project, for example, requires a $2.4 million contribution, though payment comes only as the project nears completion.
“This [discussion] may be a bit premature until we get the [funding] sources in place,” said Ms. Flax.
The City should proceed with getting the program mechanics in place, said Ald. Rainey. “It is worth doing the work to get the program” ready to go, she said. “I’d be willing to start working on it right now.” Four projects in the pipeline now will be subject to the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (IHO) and either contribute to the AH fund or include affordable units on site. She said IHO compliance should include a mix of on-site units – which make sense for seniors – and AH fund contributions.
A committee tasked with amending the IHO begins meeting in the coming weeks, but even their initial meeting has caused some controversy among affordable housing advocates. The first meeting has been scheduled for 7:30 a.m. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked for a later time so particular members of the public could attend. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the time was selected because it was the first available time when all members of the Committee could meet, but he agreed to look for other times.
“I think I am hearing we need to get a little farther on the revenue side before we go forward, said Ms. Flax.
“I’m just looking for the support of this committee” for the rental assistance program, said Ald. Rainey. She received nods and “yeses” from most members of the committee.
“One program does not fit all,” said Ald. Rainey. The rental assistance program “is not for the homeless,” or a landlord assistance program, or a homebuyer assistance program. It is “just one of the affordable housing program we will put forward.”
“Can we look at ways to support the independent landlord?” asked Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward. Landlords like Ms. Paden need assistance for major projects like roof replacement and other rehabilitation, she said.
A current CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) program “is available to owners of rental property,” said Ms. Flax. “Always as a loan, but many times as a deferred loan.” The program could be expanded using other funds as they are identified and become available, she said. Like all other programs, a landlord rehab program would require a “much larger source of ongoing funding.”
Ald. Rue Simmons said City-administered landlord assistance should be in the form of a grant, not a loan, and likened it to the economic development program offering businesses rehab funds of up to $50,000.
Community Development Director Johanna Leonard said her department could propose a landlord assistance program. Staff took a similar path in revamping the façade improvement program for businesses, she said. They proposed changes, then received feedback from the Economic Development Committee until the new program was created.
“We can’t do it without the money,” said Ald. Rainey.
First time homebuyer assistance was next on the agenda. “We do not have a downpayment assistance program right now,” said Ms. Flax. Previous efforts have failed, she added, because banks are currently not willing to lend to buyers at or below 80% of AMI. “We couldn’t make the program work,” she said. She said the focus could shift to “developing housing that may be more affordable that is out there currently.”
Ald. Rue Simmons suggested the City could “look at ways to buy down the cost of the house.” She called for action, saying more meetings would not solve the problem, and the focus should be on “getting folks the housing that they need.”
At the Planning and Development Committee meeting held earlier that evening, the focus shifted first to accessory dwelling units. Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, suggested a plan to incentivize residents to replace existing garages with structures including affordable dwelling units.
Ms. Leonard said there were examples of such programs in California, where cities provided basic plans. “Here’s what you can build,” she said. The City could “fast-track some of these” projects as long as the homeowner agreed to commit “to provide affordable housing” in the newly built unit. Projects could move a little faster, and though the City has never waived permit fees, such is possible.
One easy step, said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, would be to “legitimize renting coach houses to non-family members.” Current law restricts the rental of most accessory dwelling units, including coach houses, to anyone but family members. It is an open secret that the law is widely ignored in Evanston, though removing the restriction could open up more units owned by the law-abiding.
Discussions of changing the ordinance that limits occupancy of a dwelling unit to three unrelated persons shifted quickly from amending the ordinance. “It’s of great concern to folks in my ward,” said Ald. Fiske. She suggested that instead of relaxing the restriction the City should focus on approving more rooming houses.
Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless said the City should “get into a real planning process” rather than talk about components of the undefined plan. The City needs a plan that “defines what the needs are, defines what the gaps are,” she said. Plans already exist and could be adapted to the City’s needs, she said.
The discussion will continue Jan. 29, and the City Manager has promised some action then.