Forum looks to Highland Park for affordable housing plan

Chris Kirkham

More than 100 Evanston residents, concerned about preserving the traditional diversity of the city, attended a community forum Thursday night addressing the need for more moderately priced housing.

State Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, said at the meeting at Lake Street Church that there have been great strides in statewide policy-making for more affordable housing. She and State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-Evanston, both have been lobbying for laws mandating reasonably priced housing in cities.

“The good news is that in one short year, we have put affordable housing on the state policy map,” she said. “We realized that this was an issue whose time had come.”

In North Shore communities such as Evanston and Highland Park, residents and policymakers started worrying when upscale, dense residential developments were not accompanied by moderately priced housing developments, meaning homes for families earning $54,000 a year or less.

“The problem is not so much the supply of housing but that people cannot keep or supply (affordable) housing,” said Gail Schechter, executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs. “Rents and purchase prices are going up faster than wages.”

Although affordable housing initiatives ostensibly could help middle- and lower-class residents, Schechter said there is often a stigma about lower-priced developments.

“They think affordable housing means crime and overcrowding in schools,” she said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes about poor people.”

Schechter said the 10 percent of Evanston residents below the poverty line are not the only ones who could be driven out, if the problem is not solved.

For families earning less than the $54,000 needed to qualify for affordable housing in the Chicago area — such as those in the $35,000 range — Schechter said there might be even fewer opportunities.

“The question you have to ask is, ‘Affordable for whom?'” Schechter said.

Housing advocates presented three methods for maintaining a pool of reasonably priced housing in Evanston. Each of these methods — community land trusts, inclusionary zoning and housing trust funds — were successful in Highland Park’s housing efforts over the past 10 years.

Mary Ellen Tamasy, a member of Highland Park’s community land trust, gave a presentation on the feasibility of land trusts — a community-based effort to subsidize the costs for housing development.

“It creates a permanent affordability for these homes,” Tamasy said. “Residents are limited on how much they can increase the sales value of their homes.”

Rather than let these homes be privately sold, the land trust retains ownership of them.

Another housing initiative presented at the meeting was inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to designate 10 percent of new units as affordable. And housing trust funds are city accounts directed toward building affordable units.

Whatever affordable housing methods Evanston chooses, Schechter said, they need to be instituted quickly.

“I’m afraid (Evanston) has already missed the boat,” she said. “With the hundreds of units in the downtown condos, it may be too late for a lot of affordable housing in that area.”

Another public forum on the subject is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at the church, 607 Lake St.