Questions raised about housing grant

As Evanston officials rush to implement the recently announced $18 million federal housing grant, some residents are raising questions about the program’s impact on one of the targeted neighborhoods.

As Evanston officials rush to implement the recently announced $18 million federal housing grant, some residents are raising questions about the program’s impact on one of the targeted neighborhoods.

Carlis Sutton, who lives at 1821 Darrow Ave. in the west Evanston census tract, 8092, targeted for the grant, says he’s glad the city got the money, but he’s not sure how it’s going to be used.

Under terms of the grant, the city must rehab or demolish and rebuild 100 abandoned or foreclosed housing units within three years. The grant application calls for selling half of them to new home owners and turning the other half into rental units.

The other targeted census tract, 8102, is located along Howard Street in south Evanston. It’s not yet clear what proportion of the grant’s activity will happen in which census tract.

Competition for home sellers

Sutton says he fears the city program may only make things more difficult for people trying to sell homes in the west Evanstson census tract, like Joann Cromer, whose two-flat on Grey Avenue Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jan Schakowsky toured last Friday before a news conference touting the grant.

Joann Cromer speaking to Sen. Durbin on Friday, Feb. 5. 

"It will be further competition to those trying to sell their properties on the private market," Sutton says, "and it doesn’t look like they’re going to get any help."

Cromer and her two sisters inherited the two-flat, and a single-family house across the street, when their father died.

She’s been able to rent out the house, but the upstairs flat in the two-unit building remains vacant.

The census tract has by far the highest vacancy rate in Evanston, with postal service figures provided by PolicyMap.com showing nearly 10 percent of all properties vacant as of last September.

Of the 949 properties in the census tract, Blockshopper.com shows 72 changed hands in the past 12 months, the highest turnover rate in the city.

But more than a third of the sales were foreclosures. Some properties changed hands twice within the year, first when the bank foreclosed to oust one owner, and then again when the bank sold the property to a new buyer.

With all the foreclosures and bank sales, the median selling price declined to just $113,500.

So far it’s unclear how much money the city plans to spend to rehab each of the properties it acquires and how competitive they will be with existing housing stock once they come back on the market.

The city originally applied for $40 million, with roughly half to be spent on the rehab program. That would suggest a purchase and rehab subsidy, net of any sales proceeds, of roughly $200,000 per unit.

But after being awarded less than half the money they requested, city officials now are trying to find ways to stretch the available funds to also build nearly 100 new housing units on the west side, the other half of the original grant proposal.

So, the depth of the subsidy for the rehabbed units — and thus how aggressively the properties will compete against the existing housing stock — is hard to estimate.

Sarah Flax, the city planning staff member who prepared the grant applilcation, says the staff is in the process now of developing pro formas for the project.

"Things have changed so much from the original application" submitted last summer, Flax says, "We have to do some collaborative work" with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to work through those issues.

Competition for landlords

For landlords like Sutton, who says he owns a total of about 30 rental units, the grant promises to bring a new, government-subsidized competitor to the neighborhood.

Brinshore Development of Northbrook, the city’s partner in the grant application, will end up owning the 50 rehabilitated rental units.

Census figures show just under half of the 1,710 dwelling units in the census tract have owner occupants. Aside from some abandoned properties, the rest are either rented out or available for rent.

"We have a hard time getting tenants now," Sutton says, noting that while the program will pay to rehab the units that Brinshore will own, it provides no financial help for struggling existing landlords.

He says costs for landlords, especially with high vacancy rates, make it difficult to stay in business.

"Taxes are getting totally out of control, and we haven’t seen any tax relief," Sutton says.

Work for local contractors

At Wednesday’s Plan Commission meeting, Commissioner Seth Freeman asked whether the grant will provide work for local contractors.

City planner Craig Sklenar said there are requirements for local hiring in the terms of the grant. "It is a priority," Sklenar said, "and we’ll be trying to hire Evanston first."

He said once the grant agreement with HUD is signed, the city staff will roll out plans for local hiring, including a website to promote it. In the meantime, he said, interested contractors could call the city planning division to be added to a list of people who will be notified once the plans are in place.

Design standards

Plan Commissioner Dave Galloway said he was thrilled to learn about the grant.

He said he’s driven down the affected section of Emerson Street and has been "dismayed year after year at the deplorable visual state of affairs, with a poor quality streetscape and poor quality of buildings."

He said some of the best architecture in the neighborhood is represented by some of its older homes. "Some of the newer stuff is extraordinarily poor, and not well integrated into the neighborhood," he added.

It was not clear from the Plan Commission discussion whether the grant would provide any funds for streetscape work, but Sklenar said any new construction work would be guided by the design standards incorporated in the recently adopted West Evanston form-based zoning code.

Neighborhood meeting

The $18 million housing grant is expected to be the main topic of discussion at a 5th Ward community meeting to be held by Alderman Delores Holmes at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, 1655 Foster St.

Update 4:20 p.m. 2/13/10: Alderman Holmes now says she plans to postpone the discussion of the housing grant issues until the March 18 ward meeting. As of now "we don’t have enough information," she says.

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