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Housing ordinance adds density bonus

Affordable housing advocates will try one last time Monday to push an inclusionary housing ordinance through City Council before Evanston voters decide the fate of an affordable housing tax referendum Nov. 7.

Affordable housing advocates will try one last time Monday to push an inclusionary housing ordinance through City Council before Evanston voters decide the fate of an affordable housing tax referendum Nov. 7.

But they’re not very optimistic about their chances.

The latest draft of the ordinance, released at Thursday’s Housing Commission meeting, addresses concerns raised by the city’s legal department earlier this month about possible constitutional challenges to the ordinance as a taking of private property.

It offers several incentives for developers, including:

  • An increase in the permitted density, or floor area ratio. The draft leaves the size of the increase unspecified, but a memo from Community Development Director James Wolinski suggests a 5 percent boost.
  • An increase in allowable building height beyond what’s otherwise permitted in the zoning district. The size of the height increase is also left unspecified, but Mr. Wolinski’s memo mentions a possible 10 foot height increase.
  • A reduction in required parking spaces of one space for each affordable unit. If a 100-unit building with mostly two-bedroom units would otherwise required 140 parking spaces, including 10 affordable units would cut the required parking to 130 spaces.
  • A deferral of city fees for the overall project until the units are ready for occupancy. That would reduce a developer’s financing costs.
  • A waiver of all city fees directly related to the affordable units in the project.

Housing Commissioner Susan Munro said, “This is just not going anywhere. [Alderman] Melissa Wynne is going to slam the toolbox and nobody is going to want to go there.”

Ald. Wynne, 3rd Ward, has long voiced opposition creating a “toolbox” of additional height or density incentives to developers beyond what’s already included in the planned development provisions of the zoning code.

The draft ordinance offers two alternatives for one key provision.

One would let developers pay a fee to opt out of half the requirement to provide affordable housing units. The other would let developers pay a fee to fulfill the entire affordable housing requirement.

The fees are calculated differently under each option, but they add up to roughly the same total cost to the developer — about $3,000 for each unit in the overall development. So, the second option would dramatically reduce the total financial burden on the developer, since it would relieve him of having to subsidize any units built on site.

Housing Commission Chairman Robin Snyderman Pratt said the lower amount “is an insult to affordable housing” and is “egrediously lower than what we’d been hoping to see.”

The new draft also adds provisions that would let developers propose their own alternative strategies for meeting affordable housing goals — such as contributing vacant land, building affordable units on another site, or imposing sales price restrictions on all units in a project.

And it offers an option for the City Council to reduce or waive the inclusionary housing requirements if a developer can demonstrate that the requirements would make the project financially unfeasible.

City Attorney Herb Hill also suggests, in a memo accompanying the new draft ordinance, that the aldermen would be free legally to included housing developments of any size in the ordinance.

The ordinance now is limited to developments of 25 or more units — the threshhold that triggers treatment of a project as a planned development, with its special zoning provisions.

Sue Carlson, an organizer of the activist group Evanston’s Affordable Housing Future, said the new draft is “such a dramatic rewriting of what the council had largely agreed to that this is like a whole new ball game.”

“I think this is set up to fail. I think it’s going to go down the tubes,” Ms. Carlson added.

“That’s my initial reaction as well,” Ms. Pratt said, “perhaps it’s motivated by a desire to wait until after the referendum.”

Housing Commissioner Hurwich added, “I’m thinking this is doomed.”

The referendum proposes a 20 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax to support affordable housing programs.

Referendum proponents say it would generate about $800,000 per year and, since houses continue to be sold in good times and bad, it would provide more consistent support for affordable housing than the inclusionary housing ordinance — which is dependent on the new construction market.

It also applies more broadly, to about 2,000 residential and commercial property transactions each year, compared to the few hundred new housing units built each year recently in Evanston.

(A copy of the latest draft of the inclusionary housing ordinance is available as an attachment below.)

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