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City tightens squeeze on developers

The City Council tonight appeared to quadruple the contribution to affordable housing expected of developers of large new housing projects in the city.

Until now the City has sought an ostensibly voluntary contribution to affordable housing that has recently worked out to about $1,000 per unit.

Tonight the council adopted an ordinance that on its face requires a contribution of at least $4,000 per unit. But the ordinance contains provisions that would let developers request a reduction or waiver of the contribution if they could show the contribution would make a project financially unfeasible.

During heated debate on the measure that lasted for over three hours in committee and on the council floor, the aldermen radically rewrote the draft ordinance presented by city staff, and managed to cut its length by nearly half.

The measure, which squeaked through the Planning and Development Committee on a 5-4 vote, was ultimately approved at the council meeting 8-1.

Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, lost an effort to retain a provision in the draft ordinance that would have required that some affordable units be included in any new condo complex.

He said the on-site affordable units are needed “to assure that there’s a mixture of economic levels, that people of all different sectors get to live in close proximity to each other, instead of having ‘drive-by diversity’ in Evanston.”

But Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said, “Segregation is not a real issue in Evanston. Some neighborhoods are mostly white, some are mostly black, but many others have a mix of groups. If I can get somebody the down payment to buy, I think they can get a quality house in many areas. People who get the help with the down payment can choose to buy into these new developments if they choose, or live elsewhere in town.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said eliminating the on-site requirement, and focusing on helping would-be homeowners with down payment assistance would make it possible to help far more residents with the same amount of money.

The aldermen also disagreed sharply about deep to reach into developers’ pockets.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, argued that with its on-site requirement the draft ordinance could add nearly $1 million to the cost of a 100-unit building. “I should support this,” she said, “because it would kill development on Chicago Avenue.”

Ald. Moran ultimately proposed in committee reducing the contribution to $50,000 for every 10 units and that was further reduced at the full council meeting to $40,000 for every 10 units.

The aldermen considered, but rejected, a suggestion from the city’s legal staff that they could make the ordinance apply to developments of less than 25 units. They concluded that extending it to smaller projects would increase the time required to deal with requests for relief of the rules so much that it would outweigh the additional funds raised.

Some aldermen also said smaller developers often operate on slimmer profit margins and couldn’t afford to make the required payments.

The aldermen also voted to reduce the number of incentives available to developers in return for the affordable housing contribution. They cut provisions that would have provided reductions in parking requirements and increases in density or height, but left in provisions that would defer payment of city fees and expedite processing of applications.

Several aldermen said it was important to pass the ordinance tonight, the council’s last meeting before the scheduled Nov. 7 referendum vote on raising the real estate transfer tax 20 percent to fund affordable housing, to show the council was doing its part on the issue, after several years of debate about it.

But, as the meeting ended, Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said she feared that with the rushed passage the council might actually have hurt the referendum’s chances.

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