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WILMETTE LIFE — April 25, 2021

Shore’s need for affordable housing aired


There are many jobs in the suburbs that pay less than $30,000 a year, but they can’t be filled because there isn’t enough housing close enough to the jobs to make taking them worth the trouble.

That was the central, sobering message from affordable housing advocates who met at Wilmette’s St. Francis Xavier School, and at four other locations throughout the area Monday.

Many in the overflow crowd of about 150 in Wilmette predicted future economic trouble for the Chicago area, as they heard suggested solutions ranging from taxing replacement housing projects to subsidizing tenants’ security deposits.

Monday’s session, one of several since The North Suburban Housing Partners was created in 1999, was intended to enhance grass-roots support for more affordable housing, by exploiting the economic need for housing near employment.

It began with a screening of a WTTW “Chicago Matters” documentary entitled “No Place to Live.” The crowd watched two women from Chicago’s South Side who reportedly spend about four hours daily traveling to and from north suburban jobs. The program also showed the women looking through newspapers for suburban apartments, to no avail.

In 16 suburbs from Evanston north to Highwood, and from the Lake Michigan shore west to the Tri-State Tollway, there were 8,757 more owner-occupied units at the end of the last decade than in 1990, according to North Suburban Housing Partners. In the same period, there was a net gain of 49 rental housing units.

Progress in the suburbs to attack this particular housing shortage has been slow. But the Highland Park Housing Commission has cooked up some possible solutions for that town’s city council to mull this summer.

Senior City Planner Lee Smith said he’s already received positive feedback from council members on a proposal to assess a $10,000 fee to those who seek to tear down a viable home in order to make way for a more expensive one. Smith said he knows of nowhere in America where such a “tear-down tax” is in place.

“If we have 40 or 50 (teardowns) a year for the next 10 years, we can collect quite a bit of money,” he said. He said that money could be used by Highland Park to give $50,000 to $75,000 to some to buy houses in town who otherwise could not afford them.

Getting new ordinances enacted is daunting and time-consuming for citizens who dedicate themselves to pushing for them, he said. “It would be wonderful if we could do 10 or 20 units in the next 10 years.”

Some found such a number frustratingly low for a North Shore “leader” in affordable housing. Some demographers expect 50,000 more affordable housing units will be needed in the Chicago area in the next decade.

“We talk about Highland Park doing 10 or 20 units over 10 years, and at the same time, we’re losing ground,” noted Brian White of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities.

White said that more cities should follow the lead of Chicago, where it’s illegal to turn down a housing candidate with a federal Section 8 housing voucher to cover a portion of rent. He added that people who see the lack of affordable housing as a crisis should petition Congress to force all landlords to accept vouchers, and to create more affordable housing opportunities.

Other suggested solutions lie a lot closer to home. Barbara Kanter, property manager of Wilmette’s Renaissance Properties, told the crowd she has trouble offering some Evanston apartments to Section 8 renters because they can’t afford the security deposits landlords demand.

“If some of these churches around here could come up with the one and a half months’ security deposit, I'd take the chance,” she said.

North Suburban Housing Partners is an outgrowth of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, a faith-based organization.

About half the people at Monday’s meeting were from Evanston. One was Mark Dillon, of the Evanston Housing Commission, who reported that for the first time in his memory, the commission had succeeded in getting a private developer to set aside low-cost housing units within his project. Ten of 195 apartments being developed at 1930 Ridge Ave. will be low-cost, he said.

The advocates also discussed employer-assisted housing. Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights recently began offering employees $5,000 toward their home down payment, if the home is close to the hospital. Another half-dozen area firms have tried similar programs.

Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as what a household earning no more than $52,000 annually can afford to pay a month for rent and utilities, which they compute as $1,300, and is 30 percent of such a household’s income.

HUD’s $52,000 ceiling is 80 percent of the U.S. mean average household income.

For many in this area, $1,300 a month is still too much to afford, advocates say. For instance, one of the women in the WTTW documentary earned $25,000 a year. If she spent 30 percent of that on housing, she'd have $625 a month for rent and utilities. A rare two-bedroom apartment in Glenview averages $950 per month, according to Housing Partners statistics.

One of the people attending the meeting asked if Glenview’s redevelopment of the former Glenview Naval Air Station would provide any affordable housing, considering that was one of the aims of the federal Base Redevelopment Act. She was told that The Glen is already planned, and will include no affordable housing for families.

Former Glenview Village President Nancy Firfer noted Glenview has donated land to build affordable housing for seniors, but project developers are still scrambling to get funds to build it.

Firfer said although Glenview got the air base land for “a very low cost, it’s costing us $300 million to build the infrastructure, and we’re only getting $180 million in land sales.”

To some, the next opportunity to provide affordable housing lies on the 17 acres of the former Mallinckrodt College, which the Wilmette Park District controls. “One of the things Wilmette is looking at on the site is some kind of affordable housing,” Rose Dubin of the Wilmette Housing Commission said. “It is being looked at and carefully considered.”

While representatives from Northbrook, Glencoe and other area communities did not identify themselves Monday, three Wilmette trustees — Dan Carter, George Pearce and Pat Hughes — were present as Monday night’s program began.

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