The time is now?

Affordable housing debate heads to Oak Park

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Sparked in large part by a perceived need in the community and also in response to public scrutiny of the recent uptick in luxury high rise developments in Oak Park, the board of Housing Forward, among other agencies, has put a lot of time into advocating for the village to adopt an inclusionary housing ordinance. 

The issue is scheduled to come before the village board on Feb. 11, and many agree the time to adopt an ordinance is now.

Inclusionary housing is a practice in which municipal planning ordinances require a given share of new residential construction be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes. 

Ordinances vary from community to community, with many requiring a certain percentage of units in new developments to be set aside for those with low to moderate incomes, and others requiring that developers make a financial contribution to an affordable housing fund in lieu of setting aside units, and some combining aspects of both approaches.

Housing Forward Executive Director Lynda Schueler says that there is a fundamental need in the community to address affordable housing. 

"Our agency and other agencies are all witness to people no longer being able to afford the community," Schueler said. "Some of that is the market. We are also seeing significant development with no strategy for affordable housing. We see that growing inequity in a community that values integrated, affordable housing."

Schueler said that Housing Forward is not anti-development but is interested in making sure that people of all income levels are represented. 

"It won't happen if we just expect people to be altruistic," she said. "Who's responsible for making sure it happens? Developers or elected officials?"

  Simone Boutet, who has served on the board of Housing Forward, agrees and says the village board will begin the complicated discussion of affordable housing in Oak Park at its Feb. 11 meeting. 

She said that there are affordable housing issues at every income level and that there are many different strategies to address affordable housing. Her personal approach is to focus on those with the most need. 

"The thing we can impact is the very bottom," Boutet said. "Every other income level has some other support."

Schueler says that the increasing tax burden in the village has added to the affordability issue for many -- homeowners and renters alike. She points to the example of a long-term Housing Forward client. 

"About 10 years ago, she lost her housing, and we re-housed her in the community," Schueler said. "Her rent was $750 a month. About a year and a half ago, she called me and said her rent had risen to $1,250 a month. She landed back in our shelter and had to leave the community."

Housing Forward board member Henry Fulkerson says there are different measures of affordability. 

"Some define affordability as 60 to 80 percent of area median income," Fulkerson said. "The real criteria for defining whether you have affordable housing issues is how many people are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent?"

Fulkerson says that many are surprised to hear that over 40 percent of Oak Park's population are renters. Of those renters, he says that 46 percent are rent over-burdened. Of those, 26 percent are severely rent over-burdened, which Fulkerson says is defined as spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

While acknowledging that an inclusionary housing ordinance is not a silver bullet, Schueler and Fulkerson said that it's important to have a policy that recognizes growth and allows growth to be inclusionary. Over 876 communities in the United States are looking to incorporate inclusionary housing ordinances.

Without an inclusionary housing ordinance, Oak Park currently determines on a case-by-case basis whether a developer will be asked to include low- to moderate-income units or make a donation. 

For instance, upon the completion of Oak Park's 265-unit Albion high rise development, anticipated in the fourth quarter of 2019, the developers will donate $340,000 to the village for housing, the municipal arboretum and North Forest Avenue traffic calming, with specific amounts determined by the village manager. 

With an inclusionary housing ordinance in place, when the city of Evanston approved a 291-unit Albion development there, the developer agreed to provide 29 affordable housing units or $2.9 million in affordable housing revenue.

Schueler calls the newly approved affordable housing development at Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren Street, in which an entire building is being set aside as affordable housing, a step in the right direction. 

"I think there's room for more of that, but we think that units should be set aside within developments as well," Schueler said. "Or developers should make more than a token contribution to an affordable housing fund."

Fulkerson points out that with 1,300 luxury apartment units added to the village in recent years, a 20 percent fee in lieu of units could have garnered $26 million for an affordable housing fund.

With the support of trustees Bob Tucker, Andrea Ott, Simone Boutet and James Taglia, the village will begin to study the issue. Boutet says that an important consideration is whether they should require units in buildings or fees in lieu of units.

"I think the units still impact relatively high earners. They are also not the most cost-effective way to impact the most people," Boutet said. "One $350,000 unit versus $350,000 given to homeless relief groups or for use as rent assistance is one way to look at it."

While the board debates the topic, Boutet stressed the need for the ordinance. 

"The ordinance is a way for the village to make a commitment to the cause, and it also gives developers certainty," she said. "It takes away one variable in the negotiation process."

Boutet says the board will proceed with a study session to discuss the data on affordable housing and then ask the staff to come up with an ordinance. She believes the ordinance should be in place before the end of trustees Button's and Tucker's terms this April.

Reader Comments

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Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: February 6th, 2019 6:32 PM

If you want affordable housing, build it in the proposed development. Allowing a fee to be paid by the developer, and using that fee to build affordable housing in South Oak Park is just plain wrong. South Oak Park already sufficient affordable housing with about 30% of the units considered affordable.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 6th, 2019 5:12 PM

Why does this have to be in Oak Park? Couldn't the coalition buy up all sorts of vacant property in Austin, for a fraction of the cost,,stabilize and add value to that neighborhood , and just send the kids to OP schools.

Lynda Schueler  

Posted: February 6th, 2019 10:12 AM

To add, the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition https://www.endhomelessnessoakpark.com and Oak Park Within Reach http://oakparkwithinreach.org/ have also been instrumental in advancing the discussion of the Village adopting an inclusionary ordinance.

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