Taking a $1 billion step toward ending the affordable housing shortage

Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have risen like the phoenix with the help of public funds. It’s time to spread the wealth to create more affordable housing.

SHARE Taking a $1 billion step toward ending the affordable housing shortage
Marisa Novara, commissioner of the city of Chicago’s Department of Housing, speaks during a news conference at The Resurrection Project in Pilsen, discussing an Emergency Rental Assistance program, Monday, May 24, 2021.

Marisa Novara, commissioner of the city of Chicago’s Department of Housing, will oversee $1 billion in new affordable housing projects in the city.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

We’re encouraged by the city’s new plan to invest $1.3 billion in affordable housing across Chicago — an act that could rightly help curb gentrification in some neighborhoods while bringing much-needed redevelopment in others.

Announced last week, the initiative would create 24 separate affordable rental housing projects, placing 2,400 units on the North, South and West sides.

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“We envision a city where every resident, no matter age, income, identity, ability, has the opportunities and the resources to lead comfortable lives in the communities they call home,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in announcing the program.

That’s a vision we support. As downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have become havens of upscale new high-rises and townhouses — much of it subsidized with public tax increment financing — the need to build affordable housing has been given the relative short shrift.

This program stands to play an important role in correcting that wrong.

A different approach to affordable housing

A mix of revenue sources will be used to pay for the plan, which the Lightfoot administration billed as the largest affordable housing initiative in the city’s history.

Funds from the federal American Rescue Plan will cover $567 million of the cost. General obligation bonds — debt — will provide $660 million in financing.

And with city approval, developers will be able to use federal low-income tax credits to subsidize construction costs.

Admittedly, there’s a big caveat: We’re not terribly fond of the city sending itself two-thirds of a billion further into debt. But given Chicago’s history of multimillion-dollar deals that have provided taxpayers with virtually nothing of value — that infernal parking meter deal being chief among them — on balance, we can live with this proposal.

It’s a potential big benefit, long term, if the plan helps working-class and lower-income families to put down roots and remain in the city.

Besides, we like that a range of neighborhoods is included in the plan. Rather than continuing to stack affordable housing in only the poorest areas of the city, this plan reaches neighborhoods ranging from Lincoln Park, where a phase of the ongoing Lathrop Homes renovation will be funded, to Woodlawn, where the rehabilitation of the Island Terrace apartments at 64th Street and Stony Island Avenue is near the Obama Presidential Center site.

As part of the initiative, the city is buying a vacant 6 acre site at 18th and Peoria streets in rapidly gentrifying Pilsen. The $12 million purchase would allow the city to turn the land over to a developer who could build as many as 280 affordable homes there, subject to zoning.

This approach of bringing affordable housing to as many neighborhoods as possible reinforces the fact that these homes are an asset, rather than an afterthought.

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“We feel very strongly about the way we are doing this, and not just the number of units,” Department of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara told the Sun-Times last week.

She said her department asked itself, “What are the ways we may be unintentionally reinforcing racially discriminatory outcomes, and how do we solve for that?”

It’s also good that 18 of the projects will be built near public transit, reducing the need for residents to have the expense of owning a car. And a dozen of these affordable transit-oriented developments are planned for the South and West sides.

Playing catch-up

A recent DePaul University study found that Northwest Side neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Avondale lost 14.4% of their affordable rental housing units since 2014.

The number dropped 5.2% across the city, with virtually every neighborhood feeling some of the pain.

Yet the city’s Department of Housing — neutered and combined with the Department of Planning under the Daley Administration and left to flounder during Rahm Emanuel’s mayoralty — seems up for the task, as it has become a first-rate agency with Novara’s leadership.

There is much more work to do, given the scale of the need. But this is a key first step.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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