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Evanston RoundTable guest essay March 27, 2021

OPINION

Locally and Regionally,
Affordable Housing Matters

March 10 through 16, Illinois Affordable Housing Week, was a fitting time of year for this designated week - as we entered the busy home-buying season - to reflect on the unmet housing needs in our own north suburban region.


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Guest Essay by
Gail Schecter and Karen Chavers

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Since 1994, according to Chicago Magazine, home prices on average in the northern suburbs have risen a dramatic 60%, from 38.46% in Deerfield ($359,939) to 94.88% in Glencoe ($913,792). The average price of a home in Winnetka is $1,142,478. During the decade of the 1990s, the 16 north suburban communities from Evanston to Highwood and the lake to I-294 gained a whopping 8,757 owner-occupied unitsóbut only 49 rental units. The City of Evanston alone lost more than 812 rental units to condo conversion. Wilmette gained 360 owner-occupied units between 1990 and 2000, but lost 41 rental units.

These statistics may make sellers, investors and the real estate industry happy, but for the majority of residents who care not about selling but about staying, this situation is a recipe for escalating property taxes and ultimate displacement. Many of our agencies have been on the receiving end of calls from families and seniors of all races and family compositions looking for help. Clarine Hall, Supervisor of New Trier Township, was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying that, "House rich and asset poor seniors are the most rapidly growing population needing assistance in communities such as Wilmette, Kenilworth and Winnetka."

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The spate of development targeted to families without children (from the downtown Evanston and Highland Park luxury condos to "maintenance free, empty-nester" homes in Glenview and Northfield) has also exacerbated the housing crunch for persons who would like to live closer to their north suburban jobs. In 1972, the north suburban region had a total of 124,278 jobs (covered by unemployment insurance), and grew 53% to more than 190,000 jobs in 2000.

However, these mostly low-paying jobs have made it impossible for employers to retain their staffs because of the enormous distances employees have to drive.

Northbrook, a community whose number of jobs increased four-fold in the last 30 years, has the highest percentage of workers (40%) in the Chicago metro area who travel more than 20 miles to get to work, according to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. The Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, through its Homesharing Program, recently found housing for a doctor who had been commuting from Joliet to his job in North Chicago. He is now living with an elderly woman who needed to rent out a room to be able to afford to remain in her north suburban community.

The closed nature of our northern suburbs is exacerbated by a stagnation in wages and discrimination on the basis of (in order of magnitude) race, familial status, national origin, and disability. There is really no national housing policy. The Housing Choice Voucher (formerly Section 8) program is supposed to give low-income working or disabled families the ability to move to the community of their choice, but in fact most north suburban landlords outside Evanston and Skokie refuse to accept these families.

The problem of housing affordability is a statewide problem. Illinois ranks in the bottom 10 states in terms of affordability, with 41% of renters unable to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment, according to the Statewide Housing Action Coalition.

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So what can be done? First, communities need to begin to acknowledge that escalating housing costs are both deleterious to their own residents who are here to stay, and to local workers and businesses. Unless governments, voters and religious institutions believe that communities should provide safe, accessible and affordable housing for all, regardless of income, then we will go no farther than we've already gone. The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, staffed by the Metropolitan Planning Council, has adopted an encouraging set of "housing endorsement criteria" for innovative, mixed-income development, acknowledging that, "For our region to remain competitive, we must expand the supply of housing options to meet growing demands." We encourage all municipalities to adopt these criteria.

Second, communities need to look at existing models. There are some positive examples even here in the northern suburbs. Evanston is one of many funding sources in a newly rehabbed building soon to open with 40 efficiency units in the $400 range. It is being developed by the Interfaith Housing Development Corp. The City of Highland Park developed an affordable housing implementation plan that includes the creation of a community land trust and a housing trust fund. Highland Park, Wilmette, and Evanston all have rental and ownership housing for low-income seniors. Many communities nationally have adopted "inclusionary zoning" ordinances requiring that a portion of new units be set aside for families with low incomes.

Third, communities need to look for local opportunities. In Evanston, an inclusionary zoning ordinance could create dozens of units for low-income families from the hundreds of condos under construction. The region lost three precious opportunities in the last decade to develop new, affordable residences at Fort Sheridan, the former Glenview Naval Air Station and Techny. This region cannot afford to make the same mistake again. In Skokie, Northbrook and Niles, mixed-use developments that include housing could be created on underutilized industrial sites. There is no lack of creativity that can be applied once a community is committed.

Finally, communities need to collaborate with local agencies, and to listen to all those who work and live in the community, to ensure that our towns remain healthy, livable and diverse communities.

Please join us in an open regional meeting on the jobs/housing mismatch as part of WTTW's "Chicago Matters" series. This forum will take place on Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at St. Francis Xavier Church in Wilmette. For more information, call us at (847) 501-5760 or (847) 475-0858.

Members of North Suburban Housing Partners are Catholic Charities, CEDA/Neighbors at Work, Evanston Human Relations Commission, Evanston Neighborhood Conference, Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, Interfaith Housing Development Corp., Religious Leaders Action Together for Equality

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