Task force has ideas for more affordable housing

Mayoral-appointed group says the city must do more to stop displacement of lower income people.

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Chicago’s Inclusionary Housing Task Force, appointed last year by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, issued its first report on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

Chicago’s Inclusionary Housing Task Force, appointed last year by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, issued its first report on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago’s affordable housing ordinance should be revised to encourage construction of more units that will curb the loss of the city’s Black population and combat displacement of Latino families in gentrifying areas, said a report a mayoral task force issued Monday.

Some task force members argued the city should target housing assistance to those with lower maximum incomes than allowed under current law. Members called for policy changes to create more family-sized units, as opposed to studios or one-bedrooms.

Also, the Inclusionary Housing Task Force Report suggested the city liberalize rules that allow developers to build or fund more affordable units if they get zoning authority to increase the size of their projects. Some builders should be able to tap such a “bonus” system even if they don’t require a zoning change, the report said.

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It said that “while Chicago housing prices have not reached the crisis levels of some coastal cities, they have continued to grow faster than wages, creating an ‘affordable housing gap’ of nearly 120,000 homes and placing swaths of the city out of reach of low-income and working class Chicagoans. Put together, these trends have exacerbated the racial and economic segregation that has plagued the city for over a century.” The deficit of 120,000 homes is drawn from research by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot impaneled the task force last October, asking that it develop “creative and sustainable solutions” for the housing crisis. Members were drawn from private development, academia and nonprofits.

Marisa Novara, the city’s housing commissioner, said the committee did not set out to draft a revised housing ordinance, but to offer guidelines for the task. “It is preliminary,” she said of the report’s recommendations. “Nothing is nailed down that is or is not endorsed by the mayor.”

Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara.

Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Novara said the administration hopes to draft an ordinance this winter. Monday’s release of the report marks the start of a 45-day period for public comment, and the City Council’s housing committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Sept. 23, although no vote is expected.

Any proposed changes will have to navigate treacherous political waters. Progressive aldermen have pushed Lightfoot to expand the city’s affordable housing efforts, while those from wealthier wards resist pushes for cheaper homes in their neighborhoods.

The report, for example, is silent on the City Council’s longstanding practice of allowing an alderman to block a project in his or her ward, despite its alleged public or social benefits. Many contend the practice has reinforced segregation.

Since 2004, what the city now calls its Affordable Requirements Ordinance, or ARO, has funded construction of about 1,500 units for households with low or moderate incomes, the report said. Developers building market-rate units pay into the program.

While the production is far short of what the city needs, Novara said the city’s overall suite of programs for housing has a broad reach. She said the Low Income Housing Trust Fund, backed by the same developer fees, provides rent subsidies for more than 2,700 low-income households. In addition, tax credits produce more than a 1,000 units per year on average, the report said. The ARO, Novara said, “is not designed to do everything.”

Subsidized units built under the ARO must be affordable to households earning no more than 60% of the area’s median income, currently $54,600 for a family of four.

Some members of the task force said the income limit should be lowered so only the neediest people qualify, but the report also noted objections from developers who said doing so could make some residential projects too much of a financial risk.

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