Zoning issues prompt low-cost housing talk

Breanne Gilpatrick

Affordable housing is a phrase frequently heard in the Evanston City Council chambers, but the issue rarely is included on any meeting’s agenda.

The topic has been at the center of contention at the last two Council meetings. At Monday’s meeting Ald. Joseph Kent (5th) voted against rezoning the National-Louis University property for low-density single-family housing, citing concerns that affordable housing would not be developed on the property.

The issue also surfaced at the Evanston Planning and Development Committee meeting Sept. 27 after the city received a letter from the Citizens Lighthouse Community Land Trust, an organization trying to provide more affordable housing by purchasing land in west Evanston.

On a number of occasions, aldermen have questioned the amount of affordable housing in Evanston, the city’s ability to create more affordable housing and the impact the lack of affordable housing has on the community.

Evanston does not have an official affordable housing policy, said Donna Spicuzza, Evanston Housing Planner. But she said the Housing Commission hopes to introduce an inclusionary zoning ordinance to the Evanston Planning and Development Committee in November. This ordinance would require developers to reserve a certain percentage of a property for affordable housing units.

The Planning and Development Committee discussed inclusionary zoning in April but made no decision.

Spicuzza said current affordable housing plans focus on people who make less than 80 percent of the city’s median income. Housing is considered affordable when monthly housing costs would make up less than 30 percent of a household’s monthly income.

Kent lobbied for zoning land for higher-density housing, saying it would allow a developer to come up with more creative affordable housing.

“Putting up four houses at $1 million a piece, that’s just easy,” Kent said. “That doesn’t require any thought.”

Aldermen voted 8-1 in favor of low-density housing for the 0.73-acre property, responding to residents’ concerns about increased traffic and development. But Kent’s concerns prompted aldermen to discuss affordable housing.

Ald. Arthur Newman (1st) said market prices are more likely to determine development and higher-density zoning would not necessarily result in more affordable housing.

“There is no amount of government spending that can change the forces of the marketplace,” Newman said.

But Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) challenged the idea that affordable housing could only be built in certain parts of the city.

“Are we saying there are certain sections of Evanston that are excluded from affordable housing?” Jean-Baptiste said.

Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said the cost of acquiring property in only certain areas and the desire to make a profit could drive a developer away from building affordable housing in certain neighborhoods.

“We have to talk about the realism of property values,” Bernstein said. “In some areas of town, the property values are higher than in other areas. We have to admit that this area in north Evanston is choice.”

Bernstein said the city will need to utilize city housing funds if it wants to convince developers to build affordable housing in higher-income areas in Evanston

But Kent said the city will need to create a plan for affordable housing if more residents continue to be priced out of the area.

“Sometime all of Evanston is going to have to realize that we are in the same boat,” Kent said.

Reach Breanne Gilpatrick at [email protected]