Keeping its promise to the residents made last fall, Evanston City Council devoted its Jan. 29 meeting to the topic of affordable housing. Council members have made this a priority since being sworn in last May and committed to at least one meeting each quarter for updates on initiatives and progress on a broad range of methods for addressing the thorny problem.
Council addressed six special orders of business, though in each instance action was not taken beyond referring matters to committee for additional work. At the end of the discussion, Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, called for an overarching affordable housing plan – something that was not presented Monday night.
“We need a broader plan,” she said. “I love these programs, but we need to have priorities set out … strategies to make sure we’re addressing the needs of all the groups” the City serves, she said.
Up for discussion on Jan. 29 were zoning changes permitting the rental of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) (such as coach houses or garage apartments) to non-family members, a pilot program offering financial assistance to landlords who rent affordable units, possible changes to the rooming house and the three-unrelated-occupants ordinance (covered elsewhere in this issue), and steps toward a renewed first time homebuyer assistance program.
Also touched upon, but delayed through at least April, was the Evanston Rental Assistance program proposed by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. “We can’t start [the program] until we get payments from developers” under the fee in lieu of affordable units provisions in the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, or elsewhere, she said. Revisions to the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance are currently under discussion and will be proposed by the newly formed Inclusionary Housing Ordinance revision committee – the second meeting of that group was scheduled for Feb. 7, too late for this issue.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said Council “should definitely proceed” with amendments to the accessary-dwelling-units ordinance, but he disagreed with a proposal to include a rent control provision in the revised law.
“I agree with that,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. “We don’t have that many ADUs, [so] the cost to administer” a rent control program “would be too burdensome” on the City. Accessary dwelling units also vary tremendously in size, she added, and some may not be suited for affordable-housing purposes.
Ald. Revelle agreed for a different reason saying accessary dwelling units make the primary home more affordable as well, because owners add rental income allowing them to afford to remain where they are.
Council voted unanimously to send the proposal to the Plan Commission for changes to the City’s zoning law, but without any rent control component.
A proposed landlord assistance program stirred the most controversy as Council could not appear to agree on the parameters of the program. Initially, staff envisioned something modeled upon the City’s business rehab program, formerly known as the façade improvement program. Under that initiative, business owners get a 50-50 reimbursement form the City’s economic development fund for improvements to the interior and exterior of business spaces.
Ald. Wilson pointed out that a “forgivable loan” is essentially the same as a grant, provided the improved units or building continue to offer affordable units for at least five years. For larger City contributions, he said, the requirement that units remain affordable could be longer, but for smaller amounts five years is long enough.
Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said five years is not long enough. She requested a longer commitment from property owners even for a smaller, $10,000 City contribution.
“I’ like to propose a different approach,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. She proposed a $5,000 per unit, pure grant program. For any larger projects requiring more than $5,000 for rehab, she said, “you would have to apply for the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] rehab program… the program is already in place; we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”
CDBG funds are available to any property owner who qualifies, and, while they are loans, they are only payable upon transfer of the property – when the owner sells the building. Ald. Rainey encouraged more, broader and better use of the CDBG program.
Council voted to retain the landlord assistance program, however, with some suggested tweaks. “In my experience, it is always a better program when someone has skin in the game,” said Mayor Steve Hagerty. A 50-50 split puts landlord skin in, he said.
The measure will go to the Administration and Public Works Committee after staff makes adjustments.
Apparently running out of steam on Jan. 29, Council did not discuss the first-time homebuyer assistance, simply placing the matter on the Feb. 26 Administration and Public Works Committee agenda.
Affordable housing continues to inform nearly every development item on Council’s agenda week after week. The topic remains on the front burner.