Months ago, at the Council chambers, the director of the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC). described a project that HACC was planning for a site near downtown Evanston. It promised a substantial number of affordable housing units, something that Evanston seemed to be having difficulty obtaining through its own efforts. It appeared that HACC was making a great contribution to Evanston without requiring the city to make a major commitment of either funds or other assistance.
Recently, I learned that the plan for 1900 Sherman had been substantially changed, and that HACC was coming before the Planning and Development Committee to ask for its approval. I watched the video of the entire proceedings to understand what had happened.
Supporters of the revised project stressed that the project would not only substantially increase affordable housing in Evanston, but would also make a significant contribution to Evanston’s goal of racial equity.
Objections by opponents focused on how much the new project exceeded the standards set by the city’s zoning ordinances, and questioned whether the revised project would actually provide much affordable housing to Evanston residents of color who are struggling to make ends meet and stay in the community that has long been their home.
Presentations by HACC staff and by a representative of residents opposing the proposal clarified two issues of importance to anyone concerned about the future prospects for affordable housing in Evanston. HACC representatives made it clear that the changes in the size of the building to allow the addition of a substantial number of market-rate units was the only viable way – in their opinion – to finance the affordable units in the building.
The residents’ report clarified the change in the kind and number of affordable units that has taken place between the original proposals and the present one.
The Planning and Development Committee was satisfied to approve the project for Council consideration with one addition, that mid-range units be offered first to people on Evanston’s IHO wait list. Since five members of the Council serve on the committee, it is clear that their unanimity in approving the proposal ensures its passage.
So what remains to be asked of the Council before it moves ahead to endorse the project?
The primary question to be answered: Does what the City of Evanston will gain from this project justify accepting the changes that HACC has proposed?
However, before answering that, a different question should be considered: By asserting that the project cannot be financed as originally conceived, is HACC telling Evanston: either the project is done our way or there will be no project all?
All the talk of the attractive features of the new proposal seems to be a cover for that position.
If this is the case, then it becomes difficult for supporters of affordable housing to oppose the project. Because unless Evanston accepts the project as the HACC proposes, Evanston will lose the affordable units – even if they are less responsive to Evanston’s needs than the original proposal.
So the Council should still be asking itself and HACC whether the affordable housing units that are proposed will actually benefit those Evanstonians most in need of affordable housing.
How can the City work to come closer to achieving that goal? During the meeting, there was little mention of applying an equity lens in the Council members’ comments.
The Council needs to get more of a quid pro quo from HACC for giving final approval to this project. Is there more that HACC can do to benefit those Evanston residents truly most in need of affordable housing?
For the future, it is time to ask whether the only way Evanston can make some housing more affordable is to work with developers whose primary interest is NOT in providing affordable housing, but in building luxury apartments, of which Evanston already has an ample supply.
n Elliot Zashin