Housing Authority of Cook County officials moved a step closer last week to winning approval for changes to a proposed 16-story high-rise apartment building for older adults at 1900 Sherman Avenue. The project was originally approved by the Evanston City Council last year.
The project has provoked controversy: Is it affordable housing or a market-rate development posing as one to justify the allowances another governmental unit is seeking?
Members of the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee fielded both sides of the argument at their November 22 meeting, ultimately voting to approve the housing authority’s request for amendments to the project.
The amendments included decreases in the height of the building from 172.8 feet to 168.4 feet, in the number of units from 168 to 152, and in the number of below-grade parking spaces from 37 to 25.
A final vote on the Housing Authority’s project is expected to take place at the council’s December 13 meeting.
The Housing Authority announced major changes to its plan for the building in November of last year, adding building height and significant bulk as well as reallocating the number of affordable units to one-third affordable and two-thirds market, after initially aiming for 50% of each.
Developers said that after talking with lenders, the changes were considered necessary for the project to be financially feasible.
Under the 152-unit plan, the developer is pledging to provide 16 studio units affordable to households at 50% of the area’s Average Median Income (AMI) and 18 one-bedroom units affordable at 50% of AMI. That exceeds the requirements of the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, city officials pointed out.
In addition, the rents for 17 other units in the development would fall between 80% to 120% of AMI. Tenants for units in that group would be able to sign up on the city’s centralized inclusionary housing waiting list, which gives preference to Evanston residents.
Housing advocate urges support
In citizen comment at the Planning and Development meeting, Sue Loellbach, Advocacy Manager for Connections for the Homeless, encouraged council members to support the proposal.
“I would really urge you to not let these new objections to the building create more obstacles, more hoops for the housing authority to jump through – there’s already going to be just a challenge to get this done,” Loellbach said.
“And it is such an important building, with a significant amount of affordable housing, that I hope that you will not let the small number of people who live near the building … overcome the support that this building is getting from the residents, including many who live right here.”
But several speakers who followed Loellbach pressed the committee about a shortage of proposed on-site parking spaces, as well as the inadequacy of the Housing Authority’s proposal to lease spaces at other high rise buildings in the vicinity – the Link and E2 – to make up the shortage.
“The new proposal is just 25 spaces for a new 152-unit building,” said Claire Waistell. “This is 3% of the city’s requirement, and the applicants claimed that they can provide the missing 62 spaces at a nearby building.”
She noted that the committee packet included documentation of the number of spaces that exist at the Link and E2, “but nothing about an agreement for a long-term lease.”
“Each parking area is 1,500 feet away and requires a six- to seven-minute walk,” she said, highlighting safety concerns.
She also raised concerns about the 10- to 12-foot separation the Housing Authority is proposing between its new building and its existing 11-story, 100-unit Jane R. Perlman Apartments at 1900 Sherman Avenue.
No priority for Evanstonians
Cecile McHugh, another speaker, noted that the Housing Authority “has been given huge allowances for the number of units, building height, [floor area ratio], parking, for meeting the requirements of Evanston’s inclusionary housing ordinance, which contains the basic requirement that Evanston residents be given priority for affordable units.”
Yet, the Housing Authority “does not prioritize Evanston residents and is not legally allowed to do so,” she told committee members. McHugh said she had recently reviewed a video in which Housing Authority Executive Director Richard Monocchio said 80% of the Housing Authority’s units go “to the immediate and adjacent communities.”
She requested that city officials obtain a written statement from the Housing Authority reporting the number of Evanston residents expected to receive affordable units in the new development.
“The fact that [the Housing Authority] does not prioritize Evanston residents was perhaps not an issue in the past when [their] developments were 100% affordable units,” she said. “But this is an issue beginning with this development – [the Housing Authority’s] venture into for-profit, primarily luxury developments,“ with possible parking and traffic issues.
In a presentation at the Planning and Development meeting, Housing Authority officials, via a virtual hookup, responded to some of the concerns and also provided an overview of the project.
Because the project had been before the city so long, Monocchio said, he thought it important to go over the fundamentals of what the new building would bring.
“And the fundamentals are that this building is going to provide more affordability downtown, I think by far than any other any other building of its type – 51 apartments,” he told committee members. “And there are going to be 51 affordable units – 34 for very low-income people who will wind up paying 30% of their income for rent, but, just as important, 17 apartments for people who have moderate means.”
He said the Housing Authority planned to maintain a site-based waiting list for the new building, “like we do every place, and the site-based waiting list is going to be in Evanston.”
“It’s true,” he told committee members, “we can’t guarantee that 100% of the residents will be Evanstonians, but a large percentage will be.”
William James, a consultant to the Housing Authority, spoke about the 10- to-12-foot separation, saying that amount of space was determined to be needed after engineers examined the foundation of the adjacent Perlman building.
As a result of the finding, he said, the underground parking had to be redesigned, resulting in fewer parking spaces that could be provided on premises. An alternative would have been building the garage another level down, which would have been at an “astronomical cost that could impact the project severely, and might make it unfeasible,” he said.
Addresses a ‘critical need’
In committee discussion, 3rd Ward Council member Melissa Wynne declared she would be supporting the plan, just as she did when the new design was presented to members of the former City Council in November 2020. A main reason, she said, “is the critical need that we have for affordable housing for seniors.”
“We’ve heard this many, many times over and this really gives us an opportunity to have 51 affordable units at once in our downtown,” Wynne said.
“We haven’t had a project like that as far as I can remember,” said Wynne, first elected to the council in 1997. “I mean we add twos and threes here and there, but this allows 51 units and that is one-third of the units in this project.”
She said the city would not be able to achieve those results on its own.
“[The Housing Authority] owns the property,” she said. “By financing it, by using market-rate rental units, they’re able to create the 51 units that are affordable. That far outweighs concerns about parking in the area,” she said, recognizing community members living nearby may have concerns.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, expressed a similar view, maintaining “that the City Council shouldn’t necessarily be in the business of mandating parking spaces for project developers.”
“I think, as Council member Wynne pointed out, the private market sorted itself out in many regards, and folks who need the parking will move there, and folks who don’t will choose somewhere else,” Reid said.
He did have a concern, he said, if the project resulted in a loss of public space.
Council member Clare Kelly, in whose First Ward the site is located, expressed concern about the impact of the project on residents at the Jane Perlman building, already on the property. Housing Authority officials had initially spoken of the new building as a “companion” building to Perlman, with the structures adjoining one another.
“I’m really disconcerted – I’d have to say a little bit sickened – by what I see as a real lack of regard for the residents of the Perlman building,” Kelly said.
“I feel like there’s a lack of consideration, a lack of outreach.”
She said for someone to suggest that a small crowd of neighbors who exist in opposition “is disingenuous. … They [Perlman residents] moved into that building knowing that they had open space, a parking lot, trees. They’re losing that, and nobody’s concerned about it,” Kelly said.
Housing Authority consultant James said, “It’s in the housing authority’s interest to accommodate all residents’ parking needs.” He said he thought that the Housing Authority would be able to obtain a multi-year commitment to lease spaces from E2. The situation is more “fluid” with the Link building, he told committee members, but said he believed that the Housing Authroity would eventually get a commitment there too.
Project ‘masquerades’ as affordable housing
Planning and Development members voted 6-1 in support of moving the issue for introduction to the council, with Kelly casting the lone dissenting vote.
During public comment at the council meeting, one speaker, Bruce Enenbach, urged council members to vote down the project, which is expected to come up for a vote in two weeks.
“I am happy and pleased that the county develops affordable housing, and happy to pay taxes for that activity,” he told council members. “But this project is not that – it only masquerades as an affordable housing project.
“It was originally a 30% market, 70% affordable-rate project. Now it’s the opposite: 30% affordable and 70% market. This project is primarily a market-rate luxury residential development, the likes of which the county has no business being involved in.
“While I may support money-losing projects by the county which are in the interest of helping others, those in need, I cannot support the county using our tax dollars going into speculative market-rate residential buildings,” he said.