I am writing in response to the story Developer adds affordable housing to Chicago Avenue high-rise proposal.

It’s been only 20 years since David Hovey, then principal of the real estate development firm Optima, turned Evanston into a “citrus motif,” with the downtown orange, lime, and lemon balconies becoming as recognizable an Evanston feature as the Bean is to Chicago. If nothing else, that tells you all you need to know about who calls the shots on housing development in Evanston.

That was only the beginning. Developers, with the approval of the City Council, fostered a downtown with high-density housing, populated by affluent young professionals, students and empty nesters. Between 1990 and 2010, the growth in the number of small households exceeded Evanston’s overall population growth by a factor of six, according to the Census. The number of housing units with zero or one bedroom grew a dramatic 41.3% during that time.

Rendering of proposed Chicago Avenue building.

The proposed new luxury development at 1621-31 Chicago Ave. will only exacerbate Evanston’s mismatch between housing need and existing supply. Most of the apartments in this proposed 180-unit development are studios and one-bedroom units, and the largest units are limited to two bedrooms. But Evanstonians don’t need this housing. According to Evanston’s Consolidated Plan, “Evanston has an ample supply of housing for those who are not low or moderate income.” Moreover, “low and moderate income residents in Evanston have an unmet need for affordable units capable of comfortably housing a large family,” especially for renters. Evanston’s families with children struggle to find housing of appropriate size, at a rent they can afford.

And for single people on the edge of homelessness, the 18 “affordable” units in this development will hardly be affordable to them.

But the bigger issue is this: Developers are using Evanston’s recent affordable housing set-aside requirement as a Trojan horse to get exponentially larger numbers of luxury units shoehorned in. The “affordable” units, which sunset in 30 years anyway, will have no impact on Evanston’s overall trend of becoming increasingly alienating to low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Luxury housing promotes displacement, according to Amee Chew of PolicyLink, writing in Shelterforce Magazine, citing numerous national and international studies.

I urge the Evanston City Council to take affirmative control of downtown development. Make sure that it conforms to local need, is modestly sized and promotes a stable and economically integrated community free of the threat of displacement. Evanston doesn’t need more citrus motifs or vertical gated communities.

Gail Schechter

7 replies on “Letter to the editor: Developers use ‘affordable’ units as Trojan horse for luxury projects”

  1. Any reason to think the consequences are unintended?

    Such construction and density also causes a ripple effect in perceived (by the assessor and the market) and actual value of land if more units per lot can be built. Evanston supply/demand is not a closed system, so the thesis that more units = more affordability doesn’t hold water. Any responsible study would bear this out.

  2. I hope Evanston’s elected officials and planning staff read and address all of your great comments, Natalie, Jill, Janet, Barbara, and Lori.

  3. Beautifully said, Gail. Thank you! Evanston should have a centralized plan for commissioning building that meets the needs of a wide variety of people and not leave building proposals up to the people who stand to make the most money.

  4. Evanston’s original Climate Action Plan included a policy goal of matching the City’s housing stock (in terms of affordability) to the incomes earned by all those who are employed in Evanston. The two-fold purpose was to allow the families of the local workforce to benefit from the many advantages of living in Evanston; and also to minimize the pollution caused by lengthy commutes to and from work.
    Housing development projects (such as the one for 1621-31 Chicago Ave.) that do not contribute permanently toward a better match between housing affordability and Evanston’s workforce earnings profile should be discouraged.

  5. I totally agree with Ms schector. The new building near sherman gardens is a joke in terms of affordable housing for a family of 4. The housing there will not be affordable to families with 2 or 3 children even with the promise of a certain amount of units designated affordable. The city council needs to review these proposals and review the number of units it call affordable.

  6. Gail Schechter speaks truth re lack of affordable housing for families in Evanston. Our home is in a neighborhood that has been bought up by investors who run rooming houses for students. They could rent to families but they get more rent money charging up to $1000./a month per person in houses that have up to 6 bedrooms. When we moved here as a young family the rentals were occupied by working adults, grad students and families. Our once affordable neighborhood is no longer.

  7. Amen, Gail! Something’s rotten in Denmark and it feels like Joining Forces is cramming as many of these luxury developments down Evanston’s throat as they can, all in the name of “affordable housing” but nothing could be further from the truth. Thank you for shining the bright light of scrutiny on the blight that these luxury developments are, in the name of so-called affordable housing, that no low-income family could either afford or actually live in!

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