Emanuel’s affordable housing pilot plan clears key committee hurdle

SHARE Emanuel’s affordable housing pilot plan clears key committee hurdle

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) at a City Hall press conference Monday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods — on the Near North and Near West Sides and along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor — cleared a key hurdle Monday, despite fears that rents are too high for families to afford and the area covered is too small.

The voice vote by the City Council’s Housing Committee followed a marathon meeting that featured a shouting match between aldermen Walter Burnett (27th) and John Arena (45th).

Arena wanted to expand the plan’s boundaries farther north, to include Jefferson Park and Portage Park. Burnett didn’t want to complicate the issue.

“When I’m dealing with developers who bring belligerence to the table and find every single way to get around doing affordable units on site … why wouldn’t you give us a hand in fighting that fight when you have the legal defensible position to do it in this case?” Arena asked.

Burnett countered that he stood with Arena “when all of those skinheads or whatever they were” were opposing a controversial affordable housing project in Jefferson Park, and he expects Arena to return the favor.

“If y`all want to mess with my ward, I’m gonna mess with your ward,” said Burnett, whose Near West Side ward is exploding with residential and commercial development.

“I’ve got thousands of units getting ready to come to my ward and, if I don’t do this, developers are all gonna buy out. I’m talking about areas where I don’t have any housing right now. … Y’all want to play with each other up north, y’all do that, man. But don’t be messing with my stuff.”

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said the goal is to “promote affordability in a legally defensible way” — and create up to 1,000 units of affordable housing — then examine the results after the three-year pilot is over.

He argued that the “data is not there” to support an expansion to Jefferson Park and Portage Park and that there are “other approaches and other programs” to create larger units needed to support working families.

Housing activists didn’t buy it.

Eugene Nelson, a leader of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, questioned how Emanuel has the “audacity” to set rents at $1,300-a-month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,700-a-month for two-bedrooms and call that “affordable” housing.

“We can’t afford $1,300-a-month for a one-bedroom,” Nelson told a City Hall news conference before the Housing Committee meeting. “Think of the people living under the bridge. Think of people trying to pay these high prices and can’t afford to buy their children food, can’t afford to put clothes on their backs.”

Siri Hibbler, president of both the Field of Dreams Visionary Center and the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, said she has counseled more than 2,000 people since April, all seeking affordable housing. Their average income is $1,700-a-month. Most are single parents.

“You’re asking them to put all of their income into paying rent and you call that affordable. … Where are these people going to go? Into the lake?” Hibbler said.

The mayor’s plan is a substitute for a stalled plan to impose dramatically higher demolition fees along the wildly popular 606 trail and impose a “de-conversion fee” whenever developers try to turn multi-family housing into more lucrative single-family homes.

In the pilot areas, developers would no longer be allowed to pay hefty fees to buy their way out of a requirement to build affordable housing units on or near their new residential buildings.

The Milwaukee Corridor pilot area would cover 9 square miles along Milwaukee Avenue within portions of Logan Square, Avondale and West Town.

There, developers would be required to make 15 percent of their units affordable if they are built on site and 20 percent if the units are built off-site within the pilot area.

The Near North/Near West pilot area includes roughly six square miles. It’s tailor-made to create “affordable workforce housing” to match the thousands of new jobs expected to be created now that previously protected industrial land has been opened to commercial and residential use and “stabilize” Near West Side neighborhoods where development of new housing has been limited.

In the Near North Zone, the affordable housing requirement would be 20 percent. Half of the required units would have to be built on site or within two miles in the same zone.

In the Near West Zone, 15 percent of all units would need to be affordable. Two-thirds would have to be built on site or within 2 miles and in the same zone. One-third could be built anywhere within the pilot area.

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