Robinson Markus, left, and Dick Co of Evanston Development Corporation looking over a map of EvanstonPhoto from EDC

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On May 9, two dozen people from Evanston gathered at Backlot Coffee on Central Street  to talk about affordable housing with Dick Co and Robinson (Robbie) Markus, President and Vice President, respectively, of Evanston Development Cooperative (EDC). The purpose of EDC, which was formed last December, is “to engage Evanston residents in the designing, development, or construction of sustainable, sensible housing in Evanston through a democratically owned, community-based entity.”

The two men introduced themselves and suggested the group break off into smaller groups of four-to-six people and discuss some pre-printed questions, such as “What does sustainable housing look like?” and “What does affordable housing mean to you?” After about 30 minutes, everyone gathered again and shared some of the main takeaways from the various groups.

Several issues emerged and there was concern expressed about each one. The overall question is, “What can concerned citizens do to make sure the City we love and call home doesn’t lose its special character?”

Issues included

• affordability, or making certain that the people who work in Evanston as teachers, City employees, first responders and tradespeople are able to find affordable living arrangements in town;

• gentrification in the Fifth Ward;

• loopholes in City laws that allow for
        the construction of McMansions,
        which change the look and character
        of a neighborhood;

• economic stratification;

• wage stagnation;

• empty storefronts downtown;

• loss of small businesses; and

• Northwestern University’s
        contribution to the City budget.

Mr. Co and Mr. Markus listened and nodded. It was the segue they were looking for to explain EDC to the group. Mr. Markus described the cooperative as a “for-profit economic engine owned by the community” that allows its members, all Evanston residents, to “build community wealth over time.” Each member in the cooperative gets one vote regardless of the size of their individual financial investment or their role as advisor, investor or employee.

Mr. Co, a former assistant professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, is passionate about sustainable energy. While at Northwestern, he served as the faculty director for the House by Northwestern team participating in a decathlon competition sponsored by the Department of Energy. He started the program at Northwestern and recruited students on campus and industry partners to join the team.

Eleven collegiate teams participated in the competition to win the grand prize of $300,000. The teams were judged and scored in multiple categories such as energy efficiency, architectural design and comfort. House by Northwestern came in sixth overall and won several prizes: two first-place prizes for market potential and for communications, and a third-place prize for engineering.

Mr. Co believes it is both possible and essential to create jobs and diverse housing opportunities in Evanston.  EDC is currently looking to recruit several Evanston residents for job training and to teach them green construction technology. These new homes will create more flexible housing options for Evanston residents. The jobs stay in Evanston as do the homes. Eventually Mr. Co and Mr. Markus want to bring manufacturing of the housing materials to Evanston.

Both men stressed that EDC works closely with the City of Evanston government, and has received valuable guidance from Sarah Flax in Housing and Grants and Paul Zalmezak in Economic Development. Theoretically, any residential zoning district within Evanston would allow the construction of new coach houses.  EDC is currently in talks with several potential clients and hopes to start building its first home or coach house soon.

Summarizing the evening’s discussion, Mr. Markus framed the issue with a question, “Where is the intersection between what people need with housing versus what they are okay with having?”

Given the finite resources on the planet, Mr. Co and Mr. Markus said, more cities will be forced to confront this issue in the future. EDC wants Evanston to be ahead of the curve.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...