By Lacey Sikora
In June, facing a state deadline of June 28, the River Forest Board of Trustees voted to approve an affordable housing plan for the village. Illinois required all towns with fewer than 10 percent affordable housing to file plans for how they would reach the goal of 10 percent affordable housing.
Affordable housing is defined as housing costs that are no more than 30 percent of gross income. Households spending more than 30 percent are considered housing cost-burdened.
Lawyer Dan Lauber, a local resident who has worked on fair housing issues since 1985 and is a vocal proponent of more affordable housing, has followed the debate in River Forest while advocating for more affordable housing.
River Forest's affordable housing share is currently 9 percent. Lauber contends that while public support for more robust affordable housing measures in River Forest is strong, the board's current plan is not strong enough. He details his opposition at the website www.riverforestmatters.com.
Chief among Lauber's concerns is that in drafting the affordable housing plan for the village's Plan Commission, consultant John Houseal lifted large portions of the affordable housing plan from a plan previously adopted by the village of Wilmette. Lauber says the 2004 Wilmette plan was so poorly received that village officials and citizens wrote a new affordable housing plan three years later. Lauber also said that there were a number of amendments proposed that would make River Forest's affordable housing plan more impactful, but they were not adopted.
A few of the recommendations Lauber has made include adopting incentivized inclusionary zoning, adopting a policy that at least 15 percent of units in new multifamily developments be affordable, ensuring that in TIF districts existing affordable housing be maintained or replaced with affordable housing in new developments on a one-for-one basis, and establishing a goal of at least 10 percent affordable housing as opposed to a capping affordable housing units at 10 percent of village housing stock.
Lauber notes that all of his suggestions were rejected. Instead the village agreed to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and to increase supportive integrated housing, which is housing for people with disabilities or those needing support services.
Lauber, who has worked with municipalities across the nation on affordable housing, says that the data shows ADUs are not a viable affordable housing solution.
"It's not going to result in a burst of activity," he said. "It's mostly relatives who move in. It won't expand the affordable housing supply or effect diversity. It's a small tool."
For Lauber, the most effective tool is mandatory inclusionary zoning, and he notes that over 900 cities have adopted the model. Another tool that he thinks could work in River Forest is converting existing apartments into low-equity co-ops.
He expressed frustration that of all the public letters and comments sent to the board in advance of the adoption of the plan, all but one resident spoke in favor of affordable housing, but this support didn't seem to sway the board.
"It's so cool to me that we're saying yes to affordable housing in our backyard," Lauber said. "But, the majority of the village board and planning commission were saying maybe."
Phyllis Rubin is one of those residents who wrote to trustees and made a public comment supporting a strong affordable housing plan. She said that many object to affordable housing because they think it will bring down property values, but she says that's not true.
"Affordable housing in neighborhoods like River Forest doesn't decrease property values and can even increase property values," she said.
She cites the success Highland Park has had with their inclusionary housing plan and advocates for a similar plan.
"We should look at all of the research, integrate the affordable housing into the community so it's done well, and it will be fine," Rubin said. "We should look at people who've done it well and take our advice from them."
River Forest resident Megan Keskitalo also spoke in favor of a stronger plan. She said that as an anthropologist, equity issues are part of her training.
"Top of my mind is equity," Keskitalo said. "One of the most important components of equity is who gets to live here?"
She says that the village should use outside experts to help determine the best path forward and that zoning changes should be made to make sure developers aren't awarded variances without including affordable housing units in their projects.
Keskitalo would also welcome more research into the numbers of households in River Forest that are housing cost-burdened. Keskitalo is hopeful that in implementing the plan going forward, the village will continue to look to experts and data to shape future decisions.
Village Trustee Patty Henek, who recently announced she's running for village president in the 2021 election, expressed frustration with the process as well as the outcome.
She along with trustees Katie Brennan and Erika Bachner voted against the plan adopted at the June 8 meeting. President Cathy Adduci joined Respicio Vazquez, Tom Cargie and Bob O'Connell in voting to adopt the plan as presented.
Henek said she worries the process was rushed and does not reflect the current environment in the village. She said that at least 60 residents emailed asking for a stronger plan, and says that essentially adopting an old plan used by Wilmette does not make sense.
"Even if our direction on affordable housing was different months ago, it's clear at this point in time and in this climate, we had to do something different," Henek said.
Noting the timing of the recent protests demanding an end to institutional racism across the country and in Chicago, Henek said, "It's time to put actions to words. We're all learning, but to ensure we have a better plan, that means everyone staying on top of next steps and paying attention."
Adduci, who is running for a third term as president, says that the approved plan involves six steps, and that village staff will be tasked with crafting ordinances and policies to put the plan into place.
Those six steps include recommendations that the board allow taller and denser developments in commercial and mixed-use areas; explore strategies and means to preserve and enhance existing affordable housing; amend zoning ordinance to allow ADUs; explore zoning ordinances so that the village can support integrative supportive housing; amend plan development standards so affordable housing is one of the standards developers have to go through; and take eligible TIF funds and allow them to be used for affordable housing.
Adduci stressed that the process is not over and will take time to flesh out.
"It's not a switch, it's a process. It's a journey," Adduci said. "The hope is that in the next one to two years, we have a significant affordable housing plan that will get us past the 10 percent goal. You have to start somewhere."
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