With Evanston’s one-time bountiful pot of federal Covid recovery funds running down, a number of programs and projects are in consideration before officials turn off the tap.
The city learned in March, 2021, that it would be receiving $43.1 million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds designed to help communities recover from the pandemic.
All the funds must be expended or obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and all the money spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
To date, approximately $37.4 million has been allocated, pointed out Sarah Flax, the city’s interim Director of Community Development, in a report at the Jan. 23 city council meeting.
That leaves a balance of around $5.75 million to be allocated, she said.
In December, with a number of requests potentially coming to the council for the funds, officials recognized “if we had approved all the ones that were potentially on the agenda, we would have allocated more funding that we actually have. So we had to take a little bit of a stop,” Flax said.
Now, a number of projects and programs are up for consideration, she said.
They include the 44-unit affordable housing project at 1815 Church St., involving Mt. Pisgah Ministry, teaming up with the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation (HODC), a non-profit developer, to develop mixed housing along with a new church for Mt. Pisgah.
City staff as recently as the Jan. 17 Housing & Community Development meeting had pointed to use of Covid relief funds as an “alternate” source of funding for the $4 million in gap funding that HODC was seeking for project.
In her memo at the Jan. 23 meeting, Flax said that staff now recommends using up to $1.5 million of ARPA funds for the project, replacing some of the $3 million in Tax Increment Finance money the city first planned to tap.
“This use of ARPA addresses a high need and would meet ARPA obligation and expenditure requirements,” she wrote, “and reduce the use of TIF, which can be used for other priorities that are not eligible for ARPA.”
She named a number of other projects and programs under consideration in her presentation, including:
– A $550,000 request from Whole and Free Foods to open a manufacturing facility in Evanston for foods free from allergens. The company is looking to lease 27,000 square feet of space at 2021 Autobarn Place. The company plans to hire 50-plus employees, many low-income, to work at the facility, located behind the Jewel-Best Buy shopping center at Howard Street and Hartrey Avenue.
– $500,000 for a program also approved by the Housing & Community Development committee that would provide grants of up to $15,000 to small-to-medium-sized rental property owners, particularly those financially affected by the Covid pandemic and the related economic downturn;
– $612,822 to purchase 1,200 vehicle barriers for use at approved city events held on public property. “These anti-vehicle barriers can be installed without heavy equipment and would provide enhanced safety at outdoor events,” wrote Flax.
– $58,000 for a Mather workforce development program to develop care pathways in medical care, facilities management, and other areas of employment at Mather facilities.
Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee voted in support of the program at their meeting on Jan. 23.
Business districts targeted
Flax included business district improvements as areas of need too, particularly in qualified census areas impacted disparately by Covid.
The money spent there would directly address the recommendations for investment growing out need of an Evanston business district strategy.
It would include the Hills Arts business district, west of Green Bay Road, Church/Dodge/Emerson, as well as Howard Street, east of Asbury Avenue, she said in her memo.
In addition, staff is asking that the council consider improvements recommended as part of the downtown Evanston Business District and Implementation plan expected to be released soon.
“Ideally, a minimum of $1 million will be reserved to help seed the consultant’s recommendations amongst these four districts,” Flax said in her memo. “It is anticipated that the cost of implementing the recommendations will far exceed our remaining ARPA balance.”
In discussion at the Jan. 23 meeting, council members added other projects or programs to the list.
Leading off, Council Member Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, asked about city crosswalk improvements, particularly along streets that lead into parks and where only flags are used to warn pedestrians.
Suffredin said the addition of light-up signage or other measures are needed to improve safety in those areas.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, emphasized business district improvements, particularly downtown and the Main-Dempster Mile District.
Affordable housing “is clearly one of the city council’s priorities,” based on a council goal-setting session held just a couple of weeks ago, he said.
Nieuwsma also made a pitch for his favorite areas, moving forward on the city’s Climate Action Resilience Plan (CARP) plan and reducing Evanston’s carbon footprint.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said he would “like us to look at using, if not the entire portion, a good portion of the ARPA balance, actually supporting the creation of new affordable units in our city – which we have not done to this point.”
“We know that one of the largest impacts of the pandemic was around housing, and not just around the energy efficiency of housing but people actually having housing to live in,” Reid said. “And so I think it would be a shame if we got through this entire process of spending $43 million dollars and we did not use any of it to either build new affordable housing or support the expansion of it.”
Flax noted that the city did tap ARPA funds, allocating $3 million to the McGaw YMCA in June to support the renovation of the YMCA’s Men’s Residence, which provides single-unit occupancy housing for which there aren’t many readily available alternatives in the city.
Staff emphasized the importance of providing more affordable housing at the Jan. 17 Housing & Community Development meeting, when backing the 44-unit Mt. Pisgah project.
Council member Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward, asked whether officials have considered spending more on public health.
“I know I’ve gotten some feedback from people in the pandemic there’s a lot more mental health issues in our communities, especially among young people,” he said.
In that regard, Mayor Daniel Biss pointed to the $900,000 in ARPA funds the city allocated last May for a walk-in mental health crisis center, the Living Room, as one significant step in that area.
Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, also echoed the importance of the Living Room, as a project expected to address an important need in the future.
Council member Krissie Harris, 2nd Ward, didn’t name any specific programs, noting that a “time gap” had occurred between the time former Second Ward Council Member Peter Braithwaite vacated his position and she was named to fill it last September.
Harris said she’s hoping to be able to catch up and “really support and do some innovative things,” moving forward.
Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, asked about the status of more than $500,000 in ARPA funds initially allocated to the city’s health department.
“I think we need to vote on how we reallocate that,” she said.
Flax said that, with the Health Department deciding it did not need the money for that purpose, the funds were “returned to the unallocated pot.”
Kelly said she has exchanged emails with Ike Ogbo, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, and hadn’t been able to determine the money’s status.
“I think it should be explicitly stated that this has been returned,” she told Flax.
Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, the last council member to speak, mentioned mental health.
He also spoke about a commitment towards addressing health disparities in Evanston. In October 2022, the city Health Department issued a study reporting disparities in life expectancy and other health issues between Black and white wards.
In the predominantly Black 5th Ward, residents had a life expectancy five to 13 years less than residents in predominately white neighborhoods, it was reported.
Burns noted that the city updates the study every five years.
“But I want to make sure we don’t just stop there,” he said. “We don’t just have a report and not have a response to it.”
For the past several weeks, he said, he has been working with Ogbo and also bringing in community members to talk about developing an intervention similarly structured, at least initially, to the pilot guaranteed basic income program the city has launched.
He said community members would be recruited to take part in a program “where we’ll put together a cohort of community members who are affected by chronic illnesses that were identified in the study.”
He said those community members would take in a year-long pilot program “that doesn’t just focus on one aspect to get healthier, but it focuses on both nutrition…also physical and mental health.”
ARPA support for the initiative “makes a lot of sense – at least for part of it, maybe all of it,” he said.
Council members took no vote on priorities at the session, which was designed for discussion only. More discussion and work is expected to take place around “this important topic,” said Mayor Biss, thanking officials for their good work.