Some examples of possible affordable housing developments presented at Tuesday’s meeting. (Graphic from Housing and Community Development Committee presentation)

Members of the city’s recently formed Housing and Community Development Committee gathered virtually Tuesday night to renew a pre-pandemic conversation about efforts in Evanston to build more affordable housing. New affordable housing plans in Evanston have been on hold since March 2020, when COVID-19 derailed discussion of a study of the city’s housing needs, but the committee finally met Oct. 19 to discuss the research.

Evanston Housing and Grants Manager Sarah Flax began the hearing by going through a presentation on the community engagement findings of the study conducted by the Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee before the pandemic. According to that presentation, Evanston has lost thousands of lower-priced rental units since 2000, while the number of rental units charging more than $1,000 per month has increased rapidly. 

Committee members, city staff and consultants held 38 individual meetings with local leaders and residents as well as 23 small-group discussions with a total of 200 participants. Based on those conversations, the study found that people in Evanston feel that the most pressing housing issues are the lack of affordable units for low-income households and the fact that paying to live in Evanston is becoming increasingly difficult for the middle-class, blue-collar families who also work here. Many residents supported programs to develop more accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which are additional housing units created on a pre-existing property with their own separate entrance, kitchen, bathroom and living space. 

“The overriding theme is more density,” said Mike Roane, an Evanston resident who was Chair of the Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee when it conducted the study. “You see a lot of recommendations for granny flats and smaller footprints and shared living, even multifamily units around transportation hubs or even loosening the restrictions of single-family housing. But overall, the theme is more density, and I think going back to Economics 101, if you increase the supply, then the demand goes down, and so prices [would not be] rising as quickly as what we’re seeing right now.”

According to Flax and committee Chair and 7th Ward City Council member Eleanor Revelle, only a handful of ADUs currently exist in Evanston, a fact that other members of the committee saw as evidence the city has not done enough in the last two decades to improve affordable housing options, defined as when rent or mortgage costs are 30% or less of household income.

Community members on the committee criticized the high tax rates and unmitigated rent increases that have put a strain on Evanston renters and homeowners, especially during the pandemic. 

This chart of Evanston housing affordability shows the number of units available at various rents. In general, the number of less-expensive units has decreased while pricier options have grown. (Graph from Housing and Community Development Committee presentation)

Resident and committee member Hugo Rodriguez, a real estate broker, said that many people he works with would love to live in Evanston, but they simply can’t pay the average Evanston rent or mortgage for a single-family home or a multi-bedroom apartment. Rodriguez also said that Evanston should look to other cities around the country like Portland, Oregon, that have successfully developed a large number of ADUs and other affordable housing accommodations. 

“Evanston really is good on paper, but we really have not crossed that threshold,” Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of very complicated issues that interfere with affordable housing, and we’re losing people. We’re spilling out into other communities people who would love to live in Evanston.” 

Among other suggestions, committee members discussed changes to zoning requirements that would allow more developers to build ADUs and other ways to incentivize affordable housing. One option could be prohibiting the de-densification of properties, which would prevent builders from converting a two-unit house into one unit, City Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma said. 

Rodriguez said the city should focus some of its efforts on educating the public about the importance of affordable housing to stop the current “not in my backyard” approach that some of Evanston’s more affluent communities might have when it comes to affordable housing. Cheap and well-maintained housing options are simply healthy for our planet, he said. 

Flax concluded by saying that housing changes are essential for the success of the city’s overall comprehensive plan moving forward because of the ways that other important issues intersect with the topic of affordable housing. 

“We have disparities in opportunity in so many ways in our community, and we do have to begin to address them all,” Flax said. “There are transportation differences, there are all of these other things that we need to look at that are affected by our housing. Housing, when you think of it, is the backbone of everybody’s life.” 

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

3 replies on “How can Evanston add affordable housing? Housing and Community Development Committee discusses options.”

  1. It seems to me that the graph is fairly meaningless as it is not inflation adjusted. Incomes have obviously risen during this time so affordability has not decreased as much as implied by the graph. Also, a good part of why housing costs have increased is because property taxes have increased substantially during this period.

  2. “even multifamily units around transportation hubs or even loosening the restrictions of single-family housing.”
    This kind of thinking is the problem. It’s not a sacrifice to have multi-family homes. People who live in multi-family homes are not less than those who can afford single family homes and should be welcomed in Evanston. There is nothing inherently good about single family homes. To the contrary the sprawl they cause is a huge contributor to climate change. As the city grows the amount and type of housing demanded changes. There is nothing radical about allowing changing needs and demands to change the type of housing we see in Evanston.
    The simple reality is that if we are serious about solving the housing crisis we need hundreds if not thousands of new homes. Creating affordability requirements doesn’t fundamentally change that, it just changes the distribution of the scarce housing supply from being based on money to luck of the draw, perhaps an end in its own right to some, but fundamentally not solving the shortage. Evanstonians don’t want to hear, but there is a singular and simple solution to the housing shortage: build more. Anyone who doesn’t support that isn’t serious about making sure there is housing for everyone. Multi-family homes are one of the defining features of a city, so if we’re not building it we might as well get it over it and rename our town from the City of Evanston to the exclusionary, unaffordable suburb of Evanston.

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