Evanston landlords who own up to 35 housing units and saw a loss in rental income during the pandemic could get access to some financial relief soon.

The city’s Housing and Community Development Committee, made up of several community members and City Council representatives, debated ideas for rolling out an assistance program during its latest meeting Tuesday night. The initial proposal from city staff would have allowed small and medium landlords to receive up to 75% of the financial loss on their rental properties reported in their 2021 tax return, with a maximum relief of either $15,000 or $12,000, depending on the number approved by the committee.

Evanston’s first affordable backyard home, known as an accessory dwelling unit, opened last week in back of a duplex at 1930 Jackson Ave. Credit: Richard Cahan

But after a wide-ranging discussion on program limitations and challenges during Tuesday’s meeting, the committee tabled a vote on the program until next month, when city staff will bring back a revised proposal based on feedback from committee members.

“We had people that mentioned, ‘Oh, we had an impact, but we got rent assistance, so we were made whole,’ or, ‘We had an impact, and in one unit, we had rent assistance, but in the other one, we had a really long vacancy, so we got a really deep loss there,'” said Marion Johnson, one of the city’s housing and economic development analysts. “There were a lot of different scenarios that made it fairly complicated because we had a small amount of data, very small, and a lot of different scenarios with that data.”

As Johnson mentioned, the city sent out a survey about pandemic financial losses to more than 3,000 local landlords, but only 50 of them actually completed the survey and sent it back to city staff. Deciding where to actually send relief money was a challenge because of the low number of responses, Johnson said, though the response rate was “just slightly lower than the average landlord survey response seen in our research,” according to a memo provided to the committee.

At Tuesday’s meeting, staff and committee members ultimately considered program restrictions based on everything from census tract to landlord personal income to the average price of the units rented out by the landlord. Overall, the committee has already allotted $500,000 in federal pandemic relief funds for this specific landlord assistance program, which could accommodate an estimated 70 to 90 landlords receiving an average payment of $6,800, according to the staff memo.

Some of the issues delaying approval for the program involve red tape and high barriers to entry that could be created by certain requirements for eligible landlords. If the city were to try restricting the program by the affordability of the units, for example, staff would have to check every single lease and the size of each unit, Johnson said. That kind of effort could be quick and easy for a landlord with two units, but the requirements quickly become overly burdensome for a landlord operating 30 or more units, she said.

Despite the challenges the program could present both for the city and for the landlords who apply for relief, committee members largely agreed that they wanted to focus the money on small landlords who rely on rent for a significant portion of their income and on landlords who provide naturally occurring affordable housing for low-income residents. One of the best ways to do that, according to both the city staff and members of the committee, would be to restrict the program to landlords in low- and moderate-income census tracts.

As for some of the other potential restrictions, Evanston resident and committee representative Loren Berlin said she wanted to get the money out to people in need as quickly as possible, and that worrying too much about making a perfect program could end in “paralysis by analysis.”

“We have risks on all sides of this thing,” Berlin said, referring to dangers like providing benefits to wealthy landlords who do not actually need financial relief or failing to sufficiently check the size of a reported income loss.

Nine of the survey respondents showed a loss in rent income when comparing 2019 to 2021, and the average size of that loss was $6,912, according to the staff memo. The maximum reported loss, though, was $22,000, which shows how this program just might not be enough for some struggling mom-and-pop landlords in town, Berlin said.

“I do appreciate you attempting to help the landlords with this repair,” Evanston small landlord Tina Paden told the committee on Tuesday night. “Unfortunately, I feel very slighted by the amount of $12,000 to $15,000. The people on Main Street had two months of construction in front of their business, and they were offered $50,000, and that was for construction. So, ask yourself: How much do you really care about affordable housing?”

For her part, Gail Schechter, a longtime affordable housing advocate and the executive director of the Chicago-based Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly, also spoke at the meeting in favor of the program, but she encouraged adding some kind of incentive that focuses primarily on landlords who provide housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

“It would be good if there was a preference for those who are renting to households with low incomes,” Schechter said. “But I do think it’s a great idea because most of the naturally occurring affordable housing stock is owned by mom-and-pop landlords.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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