Committee debates proposal for low-income housing

Jim Martinho and Jim Martinho

Aldermen, residents and state officials expressed support at Monday’s Planning and Development Committee meeting for a citywide policy that would require developers to set aside housing units for low-income families. But aldermen weren’t sure if the city should grant extra incentives to builders as part of the initiative.

The proposal — known as inclusionary zoning — would require developers to set aside a percentage of housing units to be sold at an affordable rate for lower-income families.

In return developers would get perks, such as increased building height and more floor space per unit.

But Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd), along with most other members of the committee, expressed concerns about any incentives that might encourage unnecessary development.

“I look at the levels of development we have here now, and I’ve been saying ‘slow down,'” she said.

Addressing Wynne’s concerns, aldermen toyed with the idea of enacting an affordable housing requirement without offering special incentives — even if it drives some developers away.

“I’m at a point of saturation to the extent that if we put a chilling effect on some developers, I support that,” said Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th). “We’re in the driver’s seat as far as I’m concerned.”

Residents, activists and state officials came out strongly for the affordable housing initiative.

“I am proud of the fact that in my backyard you are taking steps for affordable housing,” said State Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston.

Gail Schechter, executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center, said that the plan ensured that all neighborhoods would have equal access to affordable housing.

“You have a uniform rule that prevents different pockets of the community from being treated differently,” she said.

The issue was brought to the committee by a task force of residents, city officials and developers that deliberated for a year on a proposed inclusionary zoning policy.

“We need to have a simple policy up front that clarifies Evanston’s commitment to affordable housing,” said Housing Commission chairwoman Robin Snyderman Pratt, whose committee sponsored the task force. She said that there has been a decrease in the availability of middle-income housing in Evanston.

The proposed inclusionary housing policy could alleviate both of those problems, said Nicholas Brunick, who works for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest — the firm that advised the city in drafting the initiative.

“This helps stimulate the local economy,” he said. “Families have more money in their pocket to spend on goods and services.”

Brunick also told the committee that enacting the initiative would not significantly lower profit margins for developers, ensuring that Evanston would remain an attractive market for investors. He said developers involved in the process merely requested a clear and concise affordable housing plan.

The committee did not make an official decision Monday but will revisit the issue later.