At a virtual meeting of the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee on Tuesday night, members discussed and approved more than $1.2 million in Community Development Block Grants for housing and infrastructure projects.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal CDBG program aims “to develop viable urban communities by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment, and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons.”
In Evanston, the majority of CDBG funding typically goes toward affordable housing efforts and infrastructure improvements to roads, sidewalks, parks and other public spaces. At the Dec. 14 meeting, the committee unanimously approved an estimated $527,500 for affordable housing and $729,625 for “livable communities” in 2022 CDBG funds.
The affordable housing money will go toward making critical home repairs in low-income areas and housing code enforcement, which includes funding for five property maintenance inspectors tasked with identifying safety violations committed by landlords and property owners.
Under its livable communities goal, the committee allocated $390,000 for paving an alley north of Emerson Street and east of Hartrey Avenue, $150,000 for a sidewalk gap infill on Foster Street, $129,625 for general sidewalk improvements across the city and $60,000 for park shelter electrical improvements. The park shelter repairs will outfit one of the gazebos at a public park in the 5th Ward with electrical wiring and outlets.
Evanston resident and committee member Hugo Rodriguez said he found it “troublesome” that so much of the funding would go toward these infrastructure projects instead of issues he saw as more pressing, such as homelessness and affordable housing. Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns said the city devotes other funding toward affordable housing, and CDBG can be a rigid and inflexible program given federal requirements for how to deploy the grant money.
“Oftentimes, the city uses a combination of different funds to support its efforts, including sidewalk improvement, alley improvement, depending on where it is,” Burns said during the meeting. “And so there are other funds that we use to develop new affordable housing units, to do renovations. It’s not just these funds, it’s affordable housing funds, TIF funds, so I just wanted to underscore that point.”
City Engineer Lara Biggs and other committee members also emphasized the significance of maintaining sidewalks across the city, especially in vulnerable areas near schools or senior-living facilities. Young children and elderly residents need accessible walkways where they can safely travel to and from places like schools or the grocery store, Biggs said.
One of the areas the city has targeted for CDBG sidewalk improvements, for example, is near a Walgreens drugstore across the street from the Over the Rainbow Association, which is an independent living facility for people with physical disabilities.
“I am someone who has been homeless, my family forced out of the city of Evanston because we couldn’t afford to live here, so I understand at a deep personal level how necessary [affordable housing] is,” said 8th Ward Council member Devon Reid. “But also, we want to realize that as we put people into this affordable housing, we want to have a neighborhood that they should be proud to live in. So we also have to keep up with the streets, the parks and all the things that make that neighborhood a safe, clean place to live.”