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Residents debate housing referendum

Affordable housing activists are concerned about prospects for passage of a referendum to fund housing programs by raising the real estate transfer tax.

“There are those in the community who’ve been involved in affordable housing for a long time who think this has very little chance of passing, and that it could have negative impact on what little momentum we’ve achieved so far on inclusionary housing,” Evanston Housing Commission member Carol Balkcom says.

Another Housing Commission member, Susan Munro, said it’s hard to know what prospects for the referendum are. “Many people misunderstand what affordable housing is,” she said, “confusing it with subsidized rental housing, and some people feel we already have enough of that.”

Affordable housing, Ms. Munro said, is designed for people in the middle who, she said, have increasingly been priced out of Evanston.

Sue Carlson, an organizer of the activist group Evaston’s Affordable Housing Future, says winning the referendum vote “seems to me like a pretty hopeless case.”

She’s called the referendum a cynical move by City Council members who she believes don’t actually support affordable housing and are likely to use the referendum’s defeat as an excuse to torpedo other housing affordability proposals.

She notes that the council has not yet gotten around to taking action on a proposal to require developers to include affordable housing in large new development projects, two years after the Housing Commission first recommended the measure.

Other local residents suggest that Evanston already has many affordable housing options. Kristin Doll of 140 Custer Ave., said the 8th Ward, where she lives, has many condominiums that are affordably priced.

“The idea that nobody but the super-rich can buy property in Evanston is a fallacy,” Ms. Doll said, “You may not be able to buy in the mansion district, and you may have to settle for a condo as opposed to a single-family house,” she added, “but property ownership in Evanston can be within the reach of many people who are willing to make the sacrifices.”

And Vito Brugliera of 1304 Wesley Ave. says that activists shouldn’t be unwilling to submit their ideas to the will of the voters.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who proposed the referendum, said she believes constructing affordable housing in new developments is too costly and that there is a considerable supply of existing housing units in the city priced at $300,000 or less.

“With a little help, for people with incomes at 80 percent of the median, we could make lots of that housing affordable,” she says.

At current real estate transfer tax collection rates the tax increase would generate about $800,000 a year to fund affordable housing.

It’s not yet possible to calculate how many people would be helped by that much funding, because the council hasn’t yet determined details of how the program would operate.

Also unclear is what impact recent trends in the housing market may have on support for the referendum. With housing sales slowing and price appreciation decreasing, some voters may conclude the need for government action to make housing more affordable has decreased.

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