The city’s Housing and Community Development Committee voted to move forward on three proposed affordable housing ordinances the Equity and Empowerment Commission presented at the committee’s meeting Tuesday night, March 21.

The committee is set to review drafts of all three ordinances from the city’s legal team in the next quarter. The commission’s anti-predatory tactics ordinance and its recommendation to increase the affordable housing demolition tax were supported by the committee.

Though the third recommendation is also moving forward, it faced pushback from some committee members. The commission proposes to require homeowners to maintain the original unit counts of buildings with two to four units.

Karla Thomas (second from left) presents the Equity and Empowerment Commission’s recommendations for preserving affordable housing in Evanston. Credit: Gina Castro

Karla Thomas, chair of the commission, presented the recommendations.

The commission found that about two deconversions – when, for example, a two-unit building is converted into a single-family home – have occurred in Evanston each year for the past 13 years. And 44% of them happen within the Second Ward, Thomas said.

“In those particular areas, where there’s so little affordable housing, we need to treat it like an endangered species,” Thomas said. “The more we ignore the sprinkling we have in those areas, the more and more Evanston becomes a segregated place.”

Committee member Hugo Rodriguez had some concerns about the limitations this ordinance could have on property owners, like him, who own and live in a multiunit building.

“We are starting something that is a slippery slope,” Rodriguez said. “It’s very hard to come to these meetings and then just take rights away. So, as much as I like to hear of new affordable houses, this really is problematic to me.”

Loren Berlin, another committee member, offered some amendments to the proposed ordinance. For one, homeowners could pay a deconversion tax that could contribute to the city’s affordable housing tax, which the demolition tax also does, Berlin said. She also recommended adding a grandfather clause for longtime homeowners.

The committee and Thomas discussed making exceptions for units without enough egress. They also mentioned allowing homeowners to add more units.

Before beginning her presentation Tuesday night, Thomas cleared the air and directly addressed her own past with deconversions.

Thomas converted the home she currently lives in from a two-flat to a single-family home, which the commission’s proposed ordinance would prohibit.

“So this isn’t about, ‘Well, she did it and she wants to close the door behind her so nobody else could do it,'” Thomas said. “What I did with my house, and what many others in the Second Ward have done with their houses, has systematically slowly wiped out most of the Black population, because a lot of affordable housing has gone [from] there.”

Thomas said the previous owners converted her home from a single-family home to a two-flat, and then she reconverted it back to a single-family home 10 years ago.

In an interview before Tuesday night’s meeting, she told the RoundTable the home is the only property she owns in Evanston. Thomas rents out the six-bedroom home on Airbnb for $650 a day when she and her family are out of town, she said.

Thomas also owns two properties in Chicago, which she said she used to live in. She wouldn’t disclose the estimated income she makes from the two properties.

Thomas’ mixed-use developments at 1513-15 Greenleaf Street look starkly different from nearby homes. Credit: Google Street View

Thomas, the founder and managing broker of Urb & Burb Realty, also admitted she helped to gentrify 1513-15 Greenleaf Street in 2016. But she said she has learned from that experience and has been transparent with the commission about her history.

“Is it gentrification? Absolutely,” Thomas said. “Am I going to do that again? No, because the more you know, the better you try to be.”

Eighth Ward City Council Member Devon Reid, who also serves on the commission and the Housing and Community Development Committee, agreed that Thomas has been transparent about her real estate-related decisions. In an interview with the RoundTable, Reid said her involvement in the commission doesn’t present a bias.

“Since the very beginning, she has acknowledged … her ignorance on this issue prior to getting more involved in the community and learning about this,” Reid said before Tuesday’s meeting, “and now, as someone who realized that they maybe made a mistake or did something to contribute potentially to gentrification or to the reduction of affordable housing in the community, she’s looking to rectify that. And I think that’s the responsible thing to do.”

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. How disappointing and hypocritical of Chairperson Thomas. As I see everywhere on social media, “it is about IMPACT, not INTENT.” Or does that phrase only apply in certain situations or to certain people? The impact of these actions taken only seven years ago is that there is less affordable housing as a direct result of their actions.

    Actions speak louder than words. What actions are they taking to repair that harm? Does any of that $650 per night (50 hours of labor at the $13/hour Illinois minimum wage) go toward funding low income housing? Or is low income housing something that only other people need to “do the work” to provide?

    So, so disappointing and an egregious display of “I got mine.”

  2. Question: looking at the photo of the two modern buildings at 1513-15 Greenleaf, I don’t see that they are “mixed-use.” They look like residential buildings shaped like boxes. Yes, one could have a home-based business in them. One could do that in the adjacent gable-roofed buildings, too, as long as code allows it. Please explain the “mixed-use” label.

    1. Jean,
      Thank you for reading the RoundTable. 1513-15 Greenleaf is considered both a commercial and residential building (mixed use) because its basement level can be used for a business office space. The buildings are both ADA compliant and share a ramp.