Affordable housing is expensive. That’s one reason there isn’t more of it. One of the things that makes it expensive is community opposition. When a new planned development is being planned, the City of Evanston currently requires a stringent review process to ensure that the building will be safe and livable, will not cause harm, and will meet standards set forth in municipal plans and code. This process includes opportunity for community members to hear about and influence the development plans.
The process also provides opportunity for community members who don’t like a development to delay progress and demand additional steps such as repeated studies and hearings – even after a development has been approved. These tactics increase the cost of building housing and reduce the amount of affordable housing developers can afford to create.
Take the Emerson building under development by the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC). This will be a new mixed-income residential building with 152 units, 51 of which will be affordable. Fifty-one units is a significant addition to the City of Evanston’s affordable housing stock.
The building is large and will change the way its immediate neighborhood looks. Some of the neighbors who live near the building site are very upset about this. They mounted a fierce fight when the city was considering the HACC’s proposal. However, the City Council unanimously approved the building anyway, and plans had been moving forward – until the last Plan Commission meeting.
After initial approval of a development, developers refine their designs and may need to get approval for changes. The HACC is in the process of requesting three such changes: two will reduce the size of the building, and one will reduce the amount of parking on-site (though the HACC is providing ample parking in other underused lots that are nearby). None of these changes alters the building in a negative way.
Evanston’s ordinances require many proposed changes to be subject to public input before approval, and the new 1st Ward Council member, who has opposed the HACC building, requested that the HACC conduct two public meetings where community members could provide input.
At these meetings, those who originally opposed the building took the opportunity to relaunch their attacks, with little focus on the changes that were the topic of the meeting. Although the opponents hoped to kill the project, the meetings were not a place where such action could be taken. So nothing came of these meetings – other than the HACC having to pay its attorney, developer, architect, and staff members to defend the project at two two-hour meetings. No constructive input regarding the requested changes was provided.
The most recent Plan Commission meeting on Oct. 13 took a different course. Opponents of the building again expressed their concerns, most of which had nothing to do with the changes under consideration. However, the opponents made use of the hearing process to request a continuation of the meeting – a postponement of the discussion and decision until a later date. Under the Plan Commission rules, the Commission had no choice but to grant the continuance, so yet another meeting has to be held, scheduled now for Oct. 27. The commissioners expressed frustration with the delay but had to agree to it. And, again, the HACC had its full team present to answer community concerns, and it will be doing the same for the next meeting.
The bottom line is that a very small but vocal minority of people who oppose the Emerson development and its 51 units of affordable housing are doing their best to hamstring the project. They are expanding the consideration of three relatively minor changes to an approved building into a full relitigation of the building’s proposed existence. And we anticipate that they will throw up as many roadblocks as possible during the remainder of the development process.
As an advocacy program, Joining Forces for Affordable Housing believes that the public should be given ample opportunity to voice their opinions and that decision-makers should listen to them. “Listening,” however, does not always mean “agreeing,” especially when there are different points of view.
Joining Forces asks those making decisions on the future of the Emerson building to focus on moving the project forward. We urge the city to minimize the creation of new hurdles based on old complaints and the use of delay tactics to stall progress. These tactics by opponents of the building are increasing the building’s costs, both for the developer and for the community as a whole.
Instead, let’s support this development by making its processes as efficient and affordable as possible. With this support, we can give the building the greatest possible chance to succeed in providing 51 new units of affordable housing to a community that desperately needs them.
Director of Advocacy
Joining Forces for Affordable Housing,
a program of Connections for the Homeless