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Evanston City Council members agreed Monday to buy a set of blighted west side residential properties, giving the city control of the site to develop affordable housing in the future.

With Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns urging the city to act quickly, the council voted 8-1 on June 27 to purchase property at 1917-25 Jackson Ave., and 1413-25 Emerson St. for $1.675 million.

Officials will tap two sources to pay for the purchase, allocating $1 million of the $2.3 million now available from the city’s affordable housing fund and using another $675,000 from the West Evanston Tax Increment Financing, or TIF district, which now generates approximately $1.8 million a year.

At the meeting, Burns, in whose Fifth Ward the properties are located, urged council members to move forward on the purchase or risk the properties’ being sold and developed at market rates.

“The facts of this is: If we don’t get involved tonight, this will be sold to a developer that is going to put in 90% market-rate and 10% affordable housing – either on site or off,” he said.

During discussion of the issue, Burns said the city had earlier entered into a rehabilitation agreement with the owner, Victoria Kathrein, because of the properties’ blighted condition.

In the agreement, Burns maintained the owner had agreed to either demolish the properties or develop them within a certain period of time.

Since then, he said, a number of developers have reached out to him and the property owner both, expressing interest in developing the parcels.

According to city officials’ memo on the issue, Kathrein “is aware of Council Member Burns’ desire to acquire the properties” for the purpose of developing them into affordable housing.

“She is awaiting a formal offer from the City of Evanston,” the memo said. 

“I have worked with the property owner to negotiate a deal that gives the city control of these parcels so that we can make sure that the affordability that was there is preserved and that we also have an opportunity to expand it,” Burns said.

Burns maintained he had spoken with property owners in and around those parcels who said they were in favor of the move. Further, there will be a future conversation with the community about the plan, he told council members.

“This is an acquisition deal,” he said, “but we’re not going to make any decisions without a robust human engagement process and [request for proposal] process and whatever else.”

But Council Member Clare Kelly of the First Ward, the lone council member to vote against the purchase contract, maintained the discussion should take place first.

“I love the concept of it,” Kelly said. “But I think there’s a lot of missing pieces here that could be easily stated and stipulated in the resolution [to go with the purchase agreement] – like the ratio of affordability [of future units], whether it’s going to be for ownership, [or for] building wealth or for rental. I think when you move in partnership with the neighbors, we’re going to get a successful project.”

Speakers raise questions

Several speakers went further during the public comment portion of the meeting, urging council members to hold off on the action.

Lesley Williams, president of the Community Alliance for Better Government, said the group has a number of concerns, such as transparency and the involvement of “big government” in the proposal.

“This seems like an extremely high price for properties in terrible condition which will have to be demolished,” she said. 

“Has the city done an appraisal of the property? Has the city reached out to developers already about this property, and what did they find out? Are there actually other people interested in what is likely to be the market value?” she asked.

“I’m also really curious as to why the property was allowed to become such a blight on the neighborhood,” Williams said. “It feels as if you’re rewarding an irresponsible property owner with a good sale.”

Another speaker, Trisha Connelly, noted that roughly a month ago, “there were trees cut down all over that property. And I guess what I really wonder is … that it’s kind of interesting you cut this possible deal,” she said to council members.

Yet another speaker, Jeffrey Masters, a nearby resident living in the 1900 block of Wesley Avenue, spoke in favor of the council’s moving forward.

“I think affordable housing is a really important piece for Evanston. I think that to get good affordable housing it’s going to take government to come in, to have the land to do that.”

He acknowledged that residents had issues previously with developments for that area concerning “height and really trying to keep the character of the neighborhood. I think it still feels strongly that we’d like to keep something reasonable, but we also feel that working with the city would be preferable to working with the current property owner.”

Several council members also expressed support, noting the high priority the city has placed on creating more affordable housing.

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke of his great-grandmother and members of other Black families who moved to Evanston and who worked together to provide affordable housing for other folks who could not attain it on their own.

“And I can’t see a greater way to honor that legacy,” he said.

Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, also said she is strongly in favor of the proposal, comparing it with an initiative to develop affordable housing on an underused city parking lot in her south Evanston ward.

By maintaining control, she said, “This is how we’re able to design and describe the type of units and size of units that we do need” in the community.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. This is a wonderful idea that has not really been thought out. Who will build affordable housing on this site? Has anyone in the city done any research as to what current costs are to construct? Has the city discussed any reworking building and zoning ordinances to provide remedy/relief as might be needed to achieve this objective? There is much to discuss here. Spending the tax payers money in advance without proper planing is much like spending millions on a water fountain in downtown Evanston that doesn’t work. We need better planning for our spending, so that we end up with a successful outcome.