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Where should affordable housing go?

The City Council's Planning and Development Committee postponed action this week on new guidelines for the city's affordable housing fund amid questions about how to assure that inexpensive homes aren't created only in certain parts of town.

The City Council's Planning and Development Committee postponed action this week on new guidelines for the city's affordable housing fund amid questions about how to assure that inexpensive homes aren't created only in certain parts of town.

"If we subsidize housing, we need to consider dispersing affordable housing in the community," Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said.

"Last month I had another inquiry from a developer who wants to buy a building and make it all subsidized units," she added, "that would impact a neighborhood that's already impacted" with various problems.

Mayor Lorraine Morton said she agreed. "The whole purpose of inclusionary housing should be to make sure that when affordable housing is built you don't just put it in one part of town but all over the city."

"Now the city has an excellent opportunity to get inclusionary housing going," the mayor added, "we need a committment to provide inclusionary housing in all nine wards and find ways to implement that."

"We should never permit it to be in just one section of the city," Mayor Morton said, to which Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, responded "I would second that."

Including out?

Despite the committee discussion, it appears that zoning revisions contained in the Central Street Master Plan now before the Plan Commission could have the affect of freezing out new affordable housing from the north end of town.

The plan would reduce existing building height limits along most of Central Street.

In an interview, Community Development Director James Wolinski said that as a result of the height reductions, if the rezoning is adopted it is likely that no new projects on Central Street would be big enough to reach the 24-unit limit that triggers the city's new inclusionary housing ordinance.

Under that limit developers are not required to make any provision for affordable units in their projects. Over the limit they either have to include affordable units on site or contribute at least $4,000 per unit to an affordable housing fund.

Mr. Wolinski says that, even assuming some parcels were combined to create a project site, the new height limits would probably restrict developments on Central Street to at most 12 to 18 units, especially given requirements along much of the street to provide retail uses on the ground floor.

After aldermen voted April 12 to send the Central Street plan to the Plan Commission for review, Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he'd noticed that it makes no provision for affordable housing. But he said that if that's the sort of plan "the gentry" who live in North Evanston want, it's likely to be what they'll get.

Local developer Walter Kihm said the plan is likely to stop not just affordable housing development, but all development along Central Street. The three-story mixed use buildings the plan calls for "just aren't financially feasible these days," Mr. Kihm said. He says Wilmette discovered that after it down-zoned its commercial districts several years ago and new construction virtually stopped.

Mr. Kihm said a halt to new construction may be exactly what many neighbors pushing for the new plan want.

Jeff Smith, president of the Central Street Neighbors Association, said "I'm sure no new development would be fine with a lot of people," but that his group is not anti-development. "Not all buildings are as attractive as others and sometimes redevelopment can improve a site," he added.

Mr. Smith said the Central Street neighbors favor affordable housing and argued that there are a lot of different tools available to promote it that Evanston hasn't tried yet.

As one example, he said it might be desirable to tighten the inclusionary housing ordinance so that any project with more than 10 units would be covered.

Mr. Smith said that affordable housing is just one of a number of concerns his group has with the current draft of the master plan that he hope can be addressed as the plan moves through the approval process.

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