If you have not read the book “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America”, by Conor Dougherty, and have concerns about the lack of affordable housing in your community you may want to pick up a copy at your local bookstore.
The book recounts how unduly burdensome and restrictive over-zoning regulations and the small but loud voices of the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement have almost single handedly created the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area of California.
If you missed this read, then all you needed to do was attend the June 26 City Council Planning and Development Committee hearing in Evanston where the book’s warnings and lessons played out in real life.
You see, Evanston has codified in its municipal laws an affordable housing ordinance requiring the construction of affordable housing units in most new residential developments. In fact, Evanston is one of the very few communities in this country that even has its own reparations ordinance. Pretty progressive, right? Well, not so fast.
My company, Horizon Realty Group (HRG), owns The Merion, a senior housing community in Evanston. We purchased it in 2012 when it was the North Shore Retirement Hotel. At the time it was an atrocity. It was left in complete disrepair by its previous owners and, frankly, should have been condemned.
But it served as housing, for better or for worse, to about 200 Evanston seniors. Three years and over $40M of personal investment later, we transformed that blighted community into a crown jewel senior living community of the North Shore.
For the past four years, we have been slogging through the process of trying to redevelop the land next to The Merion at 1621 Chicago Ave., in the heart of Evanston’s downtown district.
In fact, the site is in what is known as a “TOD” district, or transit-oriented district, due to its excellent proximity to public transit, its walkability and ability to bring people, activities, buildings and public spaces together.
So, when we recently introduced our latest iteration of a proposed 15 story, Class A luxury apartment building with all the bells and whistles one would expect in a new development, including 10 on-site affordable housing units in perhaps the most desirable area of Evanston, one would expect the city to say, “when do we begin?”
Well, that was not the response from the neighborhood and some civic leaders. You see, an ordinance promoting affordable housing sounds great on paper. It checks all the boxes from a public optics standpoint, it makes our insides feel good and it allows us to pat ourselves on our collective backs and sleep well at night.
But when the rubber meets the road, well, hang on just a minute. “You want to build affordable housing where? You mean in my neighborhood? In my ward? You mean right next to me? That is not what we signed up for.”
That is the exact message that was sent on June 26 and has been repeatedly told to me for the past several years. Despite having checked all the boxes with a development proposal that fits squarely within the building code allowances; and although the City of Evanston having approved a virtually identical proposal in 2019 at the Albion Evanston site, our proposal was turned down. “Your project is just too tall,” we were told.
And this is precisely the point of “Golden Gates”. Overly restrictive zoning, and fear mongering (not science) by the NIMBY’s portrayal of apocalyptic buildings creating tornadic wind tunnels blowing people off their feet, turning umbrellas inside out, traffic and accidents of epic proportions, people everywhere you look all took precedent over building critically needed affordable housing and creating supply in any area that has virtually no vacancies.
If you want to make an omelet, you need to crack some eggs. Does our proposal have its warts? Perhaps. Every development does. But they pale in comparison to the overwhelming benefits the community has squandered.
Forget about the economic boon to the downtown area that 200 residents would bring, the exponential property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes, to name a few benefits that are gone.
And, the project would have changed the lives of those benefiting from affordable housing units in a ward that currently does not have a single affordable housing unit in a market rate building. So, the property will remain a vacant lot for the foreseeable future.
The purpose of this writing is not to conjure up sympathy for the developer. The purpose is to bring to light the true story of what has happened under Evanston’s collective noses and to force us all to ask the tough question of whether or not one truly wants to put their money where their mouth is. The population of Evanston has not grown since the 1950s. That is not a formula for socioeconomic success.
The last time we looked, HRG did not see a line of developers looking to build major new housing developments in Evanston. Unless the community is willing to make real sacrifices to make a dent in the affordable housing crisis, Evanston is headed down the same path leading to the Golden Gate.