2 Fifth Ward homes may get city subsidy

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Residents have complained in recent years that the absence of affordable housing in Evanston has caused some people to avoid moving to the city.

“It’s a very real situation,” Ald. Joseph Kent (5th) said.

But an answer to the problem might be near.

Under a recent agreement, not yet approved by the Evanston Planning and Development Committee, Evanston would contribute a total of $100,000 over 15 years to the mortgages of two new single-family homes in the Fifth Ward. In exchange, Econ Housing Group Inc., the firm building the homes at 1813 Lyons St., would hire local residents and businesses to construct the residences.

“I’m trying to keep the houses affordable,” said Neil Davidson, president of Econ Housing.

The city has agreed to write off 6.7 percent of the homes’ mortgages, or about $3,300 every year, Davidson said.

The homes would normally cost $225,000 to $250,000, but because the city is subsidizing the costs, they will sell for about $175,000, Davidson said. Potential buyers must live and work in Evanston and meet 80 percent of a federal median-income requirement, he said.

Econ Housing has already built one home in the Fifth Ward at 1816 Darrow Ave., which was purchased for $175,000, Davidson said. The city gave Davidson the property on Darrow Avenue to develop, according to Kent.

Davidson said his firm would like to build more homes after the current projects on Lyons Street are finished.

Although Evanston City Council approved the agreement for the Lyons Street homes, the Planning and Development Committee is still exploring the details. Kent said it will be on the agenda at the Jan. 27 committee meeting.

Before the committee approves the subsidy, Kent said he wants to ensure that Evanston residents and businesses are involved in the construction of the homes.

“We want to really go after people in the Fifth Ward that could benefit from jobs, and if not the Fifth Ward, then from Evanston,” he said.

Kent said he is still investigating three or four Evanston residents Davidson has hired. Originally Kent had submitted a list of 12 potential local workers, but Davidson said some of those people did not want to work on his sites.

“There seems to be a communication gap somewhere,” Kent said.

Davidson also said employing residents is difficult because city code requires licenses to perform jobs like carpentry and plumbing. He has, however, employed Evanston residents for manual labor.

Some residents expressed concern that the houses the city is subsidizing might not remain affordable once the anticipated 15-year mortgage subsidies end.

“Somebody’s getting something back,” Evanston resident Betty Ester said at a Jan. 13 Planning and Development Committee meeting. “Why shouldn’t we keep that affordable housing?”

Kent agreed that Evanston needed to develop an affordable housing policy. He said Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly Section 8 certificates, are another option to make homes more affordable, but he doesn’t think they are a realistic option. The vouchers use federal funds to supplement housing costs.

“The problem with Section 8 is it’s a really discriminatory policy,” he said. “I know for a fact there are good families that can’t find Section 8 housing.”

Kent said many landlords do not accept vouchers because they fear associated problems. Those landlords who do accept vouchers sometimes are not good landlords, he said.

“It’s time we stop playing games … and look for opportunities to build affordable housing,” Kent said.