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Evanston RoundTable article, Aug. 1, 2001


Unequal Opportunities:
Is Affordable Housing in Evanston an Oxymoron?

By Beth Demes

Affordable housing advocates packed a recent Housing and Community Development Committee public hearing, urging members to address the housing needs of lower and moderate income residents.

Interfaith Housing Development Corporation has helped with affordable housing in Evanston,
such as this apartment building in southeast Evanston.

Yet the purpose of the July 17 meeting, Chairman Ann Rainey, Alderman of the 8th Ward, repeatedly reminded the speakers, was to hear how the City might spend the roughly $2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds available for public service programs, not discuss housing policy. The Committee wanted to react to proposed programs and projects from the community, some of which could be affordable housing developments.

"We have the money," said Ald. Rainey. "We encourage community empowerment and control. We [as a Committee] do not have the power to control a project."

But with a shrinking supply of apartments and skyrocketing rents and home prices in Evanston, the housing advocates were not about to be deterred.

"Four of you have the power to set policy for this community," Michael Phillips, a 47-year resident and treasurer of the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, told the four aldermen who serve on the Committee. "When we wanted Home Depot here, deals were cut. When we wanted to buy the Bell and Howell property and bring in Target, deals were cut. When we, as a community, want to have things here, the elected officials decide what we should have here."

Gail Schecter, executive director of the Winnetka-based Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, pointed out to the Committee that more than 800 apartments were converted to condos in Evanston between 1990 and 1998. At the same time, local non-profits have developed 70 units of affordable housing - not enough to keep up with the loss of affordable units. Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, affiliated with the Housing Center, produced some of those units.

Ms. Schecter, whose organization operates home-sharing and tenant advocacy programs that serve Evanston and other North Shore suburbs, also referred to a recent Chicago Sun-Times article that cited prices from $172,000 to more than $700,000 for new condominiums in Evanston.

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"There is a real contradiction between what we see happening and what is in [Evanston's] Consolidated Plan," she said. The Plan calls for improving housing opportunities for very low-, low- and moderate-income residents.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the problem came from the personal stories shared by Evanston residents.

"A couple months ago I was in the housing market, and I found that the average three- bedroom apartment was around $1,600 per month," Eve Bonnet, a 37-year Evanston resident and single mother, told the Committee. "In order to qualify for that, you have to make $76,000 a year. I don't know many people who make that on a single salary."

She said at one time she had a Section 8 certificate but was unable to use it because she could not find an Evanston landlord of decent housing who would accept it and she did not want to move out of the community.

Alderman Joe Kent, 5th Ward, asked Ms. Bonnet whether lower income residents' difficulty in purchasing homes was because of down-payment or credit problems.

"I think it would be a little bit of both," she said. "If you have no money, your credit is damaged because you don't have enough money to make ends meet every month. People'don't have the money to keep up with everything. If your housing cost is more than half of your income, then you struggle to pay for all the other things that you have to buy'You are already working at a deficit, so you can't save for a down-payment."

The Committee and the advocates agreed on one thing: that the amount of money the City has for affordable housing development, such as CDBG funds, barely makes a dent in Evanston's need. Even when State funds for housing are factored in, non-profit developers, whom the City assumes are the only developers interested in this type of housing, do not have enough money to create a substantial number of affordable units here.

To increase production of affordable housing, Ms. Schecter, Mr. Phillips and others suggested that the City adopt an "inclusionary zoning" ordinance. Under this policy, no developer would be able to build a new or rehab an existing residential project of a certain size without including some affordable units. (See story on page 5.)

Ms. Schecter also suggested the City could use Tax Increment Financing to finance affordable housing developments or CDBG funds to set up a community credit union.

The credit union sparked the most interest from the Committee. They noted that the credit union should have the same expectations for repayment as a bank and should offer an education program on personal finance and budgeting for its members.

"There are mechanisms to make [affordable housing] happen," Ms. Schecter said in a separate interview about the challenges. "If the City really wants to do it, they can do it."

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