Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee talks affordable housing, accessibility barriers


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

High-rise and luxury buildings set around Fountain Square in downtown Evanston. The Steering Committee found that as the cost of repairs to older affordable housing units becomes too much for homeowners and smaller landlords, development companies tend to swoop in and build single-occupancy luxury apartments like the ones shown.

Ilana Arougheti, Assistant City Editor

The 2020 Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee highlighted some barriers to affordable housing in Evanston at Tuesday’s Housing and Human Development Committee meeting.

The barriers included inaccessible home ownership prices, prohibitive repair costs and excessive single-occupancy housing units. Half of all households in Evanston earn less than $75,000 per year, the steering committee found. That prices out low-income residents, especially families, in a town in which the average rent for a three-bedroom apartment runs about $29,000 a year and the median three-bedroom home sells for more than $400,000.

While most homeowners impacted by this price disparity are longtime Evanston residents, the majority of renters affected have lived in Evanston for less than a decade, Housing & Economic Development analyst Marion Johnson said. High rental turnover, particularly in smaller homes, motivates landlords to raise prices with every new resident, Johnson said — a trend impacted by Northwestern’s presence in the city.

The steering committee pointed to Evanston-raised young adults who cannot afford to move back to their hometown, divorced couples who cannot afford to stay after their split and employees who cannot afford to live where they work as examples of the impact of this issue.

Housing & Grants Manager Sarah Flax said frequent moves between Evanston and neighboring areas, including Rogers Park and Skokie, are common for residents. This fragments Evanston’s sense of community, she said, though not by choice.

Johnson also said most historically affordable housing units in Evanston are extremely old and need costly repairs to the point that they become unaffordable. This results in residents feeling “pushed out” of Evanston if they are unable to finance repairs, the steering committee reported.

“We’re spilling out to other communities people who would love to live in Evanston because of our many other diversities,” Housing and Human Development Committee member Hugo Rodriguez said. “We’re losing absolutely on the affordable (housing) diversity that we used to have here.”

Smaller landlords are often unable to undertake massive repairs, motivating larger development companies to buy out old accessible housing units, Johnson said.

Zoning laws across most of the city reserve new development space for single-family units, which has contributed to an increase in luxury housing predominantly geared toward one-bedroom apartments, the steering committee found.

To create more affordable housing options, the steering committee suggested future construction projects in single-family zoning areas should be approved as duplexes and triplexes or as several small homes on one plot of land. These recommendations were fairly well-received at 38 community meetings between residents and representatives either from the steering committee or from Millennia Consulting, with which the steering committee worked to develop the final report.

The steering committee also suggested that the city should approve additional accessory dwelling units. In July, City Council denied a proposed six-month moratorium on the construction of new internal ADUs, in part due to ADUs’ ability to create independent living within multi-family homes.

In the coming months, the Housing and Human Development Committee expects to synthesize the steering committee’s findings into a comprehensive plan to expand the city’s affordable housing options, Johnson said. Funds for the plan have already been allocated in the city’s planned 2022 budget, Flax said.

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said Evanston’s previous comprehensive affordable housing plans were “really not very comprehensive” and focused primarily on land use. This time, Burns and Flax said, the committee plans to draw inspiration from cities like Minneapolis, whose affordable housing plan addressed concerns such as climate impact and resident health disparities.

However, many attendees at Tuesday’s meeting expressed a continued desire for greater clarity around the new plan’s contents.

Sue Loellbach, manager of advocacy for Connections for the Homeless, called for the committee to assign responsibility for drafting, funding and executing different parts of the plan. She said it’s been a long time since Evanston has had one definitive affordable housing plan in place, with the responsibility remaining split between entities like the Reparations Committee and the Equity and Empowerment Commission, causing communication issues.

“It feels like there’s a real need to do some sort of mapping of who all has their hands in affordable housing, what they’re doing (and) how those pieces tie together,” Loellbach said. “I would expect that this committee… helps to drive the focus of that comprehensive plan as it relates to housing.”

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Twitter: @ilana_arougheti

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