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Slump-onomics: Local bailout

Alderman agreed Monday to a small bailout for housing groups unable to sell affordable housing units they’ve developed in Evanston.

Under the plan the city will divide nearly $82,000 in federal housing funds equally among the city’s five Community Housing Development Organizations to help cover administrative costs as they carry the unsold units on their books far longer than initially anticipated.

But several aldermen suggested they believe the city’s affordable housing program is seriously off course and that the Housing Commission needs to come up with a new strategy for addressing the problem.

"It’s money down a sinkhole," said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

"This is becoming a full employment program," Rainey said, charging that one of the groups, the Evanston Community Development Association pays its executive director and assistant $50,000 a year, even though it manages only one six-unit building, and half the units are vacant.

The Citizen’s Lighthouse Community Land Trust, she said, has just one single-family home — which it hasn’t yet sold — and is paying "in the high $20s" for its director.

"This was a good idea to begin with," Rainey said, "but this just can’t work right now. They can’t find people in the City of Evanston to purchase the homes or banks that will loan money. We need to rethink the whole program. I think we need a moratorium on affordable housing projects."

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said the programs have turned out to be "a very expensive way" to try to place somebody in an affordable unit.

He suggested shifting the focus to preventing foreclsoures.

"A lot of energy has been directed towrd the provision of affordable housing" Jean-Baptiste said, "but the ship is sinking for a whole bunch of people who have homes but are facing foreclosure immediately.

"If we direct this much energy and resources" to the foreclosure problem, he said, "we may be able to help a lot of people."

Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said splitting the money equally among the groups "makes no sense to me, but that’s what the groups themselves have agreed to do."

She said she echoed Jean-Baptiste’s request that "the affordable housing folk look at getting more bang for the buck."

"This is becoming incredibly expensive," she said. "Please look at foreclosures, downpayment assistance, anything. We’ve got a hideously expensive system that’s not helping enough people."

Housing Commission Chair Susan Munro said the groups now have a total of 15 unsold units.

She said the groups have had inquiries from 240 interested buyers in recent months, but that only one-third of those qualified for participation in the program under federal income guidelines and only 10 percent of those were credit-worthy and had saved the required downtpayment.

"So now we’re down to 25 people," she said. Of those only about half could get a mortgage, and some of those deals have been lost because of the credit crunch in the last several weeks.

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