If all goes as expected at today’s Chicago City Council meeting, the city will enact legislation to better ensure that people with middle and modest incomes can afford to buy homes in the city. It’s the latest step-and a significant one-in a five-year campaign to stem the loss of affordable housing as the city welcomes a wave of new high-end homes. If passed-as is generally expected-the proposal will tighten up the rules for developers and homebuilders; according to Jack Markowski, Chicago’s housing commissioner, it should result in about 1,000 new affordable housing units being built each year.
The proposal, which Mayor Daley supports, will require builders of most new multiple-unit housing to set aside at least ten percent of their units for people whose household incomes are at or below the local median household income. That group includes teachers, police officers, and others whose incomes effectively exclude them from buying into the city’s luxurious new high-rises.
Other programs the city has set up over the past several years-such as the Chicago Partnership for Affordable Neighborhoods (CPAN)-have been largely voluntary. For instance, developers can currently get help with zoning variances and higher density in return for including affordable housing. That means that each developer can essentially negotiate individual terms with the city. If this latest proposal passes, “you will have a level playing field,” says Kevin Jackson, the head of the Chicago Rehab Network, an organization that has been active in the push for affordable housing. “Everybody is going to have the same standards, and everybody is going to have to work by them. That’s a good public policy move.”
At least one local developer agrees. “I’ve been saying for years that if everybody has the same obligation, that’s a great idea,” says Phil Mappa, whose MR Properties relied on the CPAN program to get density allowances in return for a set-aside of more than 20 percent of the units in one West Loop project. “It’s not unreasonable to ask that everyone contribute equally. The need for housing in the city for the person making $40,000 to $70,000 is huge.”
Mappa notes that, at something between $65,000 and $75,000, the city’s median household income “covers about 90 percent of the city workers. You don’t want to push them all out to the fringes of the city, to the only neighborhoods they can still afford.”
Markowski says that, since 1989, city hall has “invested nearly $4 billion to support 125,000 [affordable] housing units in the city.” That is a considerable addition-and it includes both rental and for-sale units-but it’s not enough to plug the gap. A recent study by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Rehab Network indicated that there are 120,000 households in northern Illinois (many of them renters) that could not afford to buy housing at the going rate.