A history of initiatives and attempts to increase affordable housing in Evanston


Illustration by Shveta Shah

The history of Evanston’s initiatives for more affordable housing dates back to the 1960s.

Ella Jeffries, Assistant Copy Editor

A few years ago, Evanston’s Interim Community Development Director Sarah Flax found out some residents were paying more than 25% of their income for housing in the 1960s.

Concerns over the lack of affordable housing in Evanston date back to at least then, she said, and the city is still working to address the problem. 

“That we haven’t found a solution I think really speaks to the overall nationwide and worldwide problem about housing affordability,” Flax said. “Recently the focus on housing investment is more on its value than its primary purpose.” 

Evanston has implemented a number of initiatives since the 1960s to increase affordable housing. The Daily broke down their histories and impacts on the community. 

Community Development Block Grant Program 

The grant, passed in 1974, helped fund lower income homeowners and property owners who rented affordable units to maintain the quality of their housing. 

Flax said it’s common for someone to own a house and have paid off the mortgage, but struggle with paying property taxes and utility fees. 

The program’s 2023 application is now open and due by Oct. 25. 

Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 

After the economic collapse in 2008, Evanston’s housing market faced falling property values, a weak job market and a rise in housing foreclosures and vacancies. In 2010, Evanston received $18.15 million in funding from the federal government to purchase and put foreclosed and vacant housing back into productive use.

The program was only implemented in two census tracts, 8102 in south Evanston and 8092 in west Evanston. The city acquired 100 units of housing within those tracks and developed most into mixed-income developments, excluding locations that were too damaged. 

ETHS Geometry and Construction Program 

Since 2013, Evanston Township High School has collaborated with Community Partners for Affordable Housing and the city to build multiple homes for low-to-moderate-income families through the Geometry in Construction program.

The program builds one house a year that is put into a land trust to keep it permanently affordable. Homes built through the program have been valued at about $160,000 to $165,000.

Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee

In 2018, City Council approved the creation of the Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee to oversee the development of the Affordable Housing Plan. The plan would regulate how many units Evanston would implement over the next couple of years and outline steps on how to achieve that goal. 

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th), who served on the committee, said the group focused on accumulating input from the broader community about the need for affordable housing. 

The committee decided to build two homes on one property and test the community’s reaction –– a practice known as gentle density. 

“When people think about affordable housing development, they think of some giant building,” Revelle said. “But what we wanted to show is you could have just a little bit more density here and there and you would achieve a lot more affordable housing.”  

Overall, Revelle said the project’s public reception was positive, but the committee was dismantled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the plan was never implemented. 

Inclusionary Housing Ordinance 

The IHO requires residential developments to include a certain portion of dwelling units priced affordably for low-to-moderate income households. If new developments want to opt out, the IHO allows them to make a contribution to the Affordable Housing Fund instead. 

In 2018, City Council adopted an amendment to the IHO that requires all developers in Evanston to designate at least 5% of their property to affordable housing units. 

Recent purchases of vacant housing

In June, City Council approved Evanston’s purchase of several vacant 5th ward properties to create affordable housing developments. The properties are located at 1917-25 Jackson Ave. and 1413-25 Emerson St. and will be demolished before becoming mixed-income affordable housing residential units.

“The biggest challenge that we face as a city is rising housing prices in Evanston and an active market where developers will quickly purchase land to develop the parcels into market rate projects,” Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said. “We as a city need to move quickly to intervene if we want to preserve some of this land for affordable housing purposes.” 

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