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Highland Park Offers Winnetka Affordable Housing Tips

City representatives discuss program at village meeting.

Two representatives from Highland Park's affordable housing program shared information about the program at a discussion on Winnetka's controversial affordable housing Wednesday night at the village Plan Commission's monthly meeting.

Residents listened as Michael Blue, Highland Park's director of community development, and Rob Anthony, executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing, sat at the table with commissioners and spoke about inclusionary zoning, and Highland Park's community land trust and housing trust fund. Members of the  passed out its newspaper on the topic before the meeting. At the meeting's end, the commissioners fielded a few questions and received a round of applause.

The Winnetka Village Council held a , where they heard from residents and from Becky Hurley, Plan Commission chairwoman. Trustees then decided to move forward with some recommendations in Winnetka's affordable housing report, which is the product of more than five years of work.

"What we’re working on here is a customized approach to affordable housing in Winnetka," Hurley said at Wednesday's meeting, emphasizing the need for local control in the initiative.

Blue echoed Hurley in the value of an affordable housing plan that fits the municipality's needs and makeup.

"Second, as soon as you have it all set, be prepared to change it because you’re not going to have it right the first time," Blue said.

As it currently exists, Winnetka's affordable housing report contains several recommendations to increase the number of affordable housing units within the village:

  • Preserving downtown apartments and "recapturing" those that are used as commercial space.
  • Relaxing restrictions on coach house renovation and encouraging their use as rental properties.
  • Enact a property maintenance code for downtown mixed-use buildings.
  • Establishing a housing trust fund and a community land trust -- a nonprofit that would purchase less expensive homes and then resell them to families who would own the building but lease the land from the trust.
  • Setting aside a small percentage of any new multi-family developments for affordable units. This is called inclusionary zoning.

[For more information on what the plan says and a history of affordable housing in Winnetka, ]

While Winnetka trustees are moving forward with first three prongs of the report, they asked the Plan Commission to re-examine the second two. The median income for a family of four in the village is about $200,000.

Blue and Anthony began explaining various aspects of Highland Park's affordable housing program.

Highland Park has inclusionary zoning measures that apply to new development in the village. Inclusionary zoning is also part of Winnetka's plan. It would require 15 percent of the units in any new multi-family developments to be affordable to buyers and renters at certain income levels. However, Blue and Anthony said inclusionary zoning has not resulted in that many affordable housing units in Highland Park -- a result of developers' interests, the housing market and the effects of being a "built-out" community. That refers to a lack of available space for new development in the village.

However, Gene Greable, Winnetka trustee and new liason to the Plan Commission, pointed out that Winnetka is mostly interested in inclusionary zoning over acquiring and rehabbing properties through a community land trust. Blue and Anthony said limited opportunities for new development and a lack of interest from developers has not made that aspect of the plan successful.

"It has not been as strong an aspect of the program as we anticipated we would be," Blue said.

What has created more than 30 affordable units in Highland Park is the village's housing trust fund and a non-profit community land trust.

"The affordable housing trust fund is an essential element to doing this," Blue said. "It’s the funding source."

In 2002, the Highland Park City Council established a housing trust fund with seed money from refinancing a city-owned property and continues to be funded through the city's demolition tax ($10,000), demolition fees, and "fees in lieu" developers may opt to pay instead of providing actual affordable units. In its nine-year history, Blue said the fund has generated about $4 million total. It is administered by the city's Housing Commission, a group of seven appointed residents, and its separate budget must be approved by the City Council each year.

The main purpose of the housing trust fund is to finance affordable housing iniatives in the city, which is primarily achieved through the community land trust. While Anthony and Blue listed different kinds of grants that fund the community land trust, including federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other grants related to sustainable development, Hurley said those options are not attractive for Winnetka.

"We would not be interested or [we would] discourage the village from taking state or federal funding because of the requirements that would go along with that, limiting our local autonomy," she said.

Now called Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH), the non-profit community land trust identifies viable properties that can be rehabbed and converted to affordable housing units available to renters and buyers at certain income levels. The properties the land trust acquires may be in foreclosure or "in need of significant repair, blighted, eyesores," Anthony said. The properties are then sold or rented to qualified parties, but CPAH retains ownership of the land beneath the home and collects a small amount of monthly rent for that land.

"It’s a middle ground between renting and home ownership," Anthony said, adding that the program allows the residents to build equity.

There are safety nets in Highland Park's affordable housing policies to maintain the units at affordable levels and prevent owners from selling the affordable units at a much higher price than what they originally paid.

Plan commissioners were interested in the empirical cost of Highland Park's affordable housing program. Blue estimated that it is carried by "three-quarters to one" full-time equivalent employee. One half-time planner, part of Blue's estimate, who focuses primarily on affordable housing is paid out of the housing trust fund.

Anthony talked about ways Winnetka could collaborate with CPAH once it settles on what it wants out of its affordable housing plan, because creating a community land trust from scratch would be a difficult task. For cost-sharing and efficiency, CPAH could be involved in rent certification, eligibility screening and inclusionary zoning enforcement, among other things, Anthony said. CPAH is now working with Northbrook, Deerfield and Lake Forest on a variety of affordable housing-related projects.

Highland Park's affordable housing program is built to give priority to Highland Park community members -- both current residents and employees working within the city. Anthony and Blue said that intention has become a reality. They estimated about 85 percent of affordable housing residents work somewhere in Highland Park as teachers, health care workers and city employees, or they previously lived in the city and were able to stay. Anthony and Blue said the city has not run into legal issues enforcing the those priorities.

However, Highland Park's affordable housing is available to people at lower income levels than the people Winnetka's plan is meant to serve. Affordable units are available in Highland Park to families earning between 50-120 -percent of the area median income (AMI) for a family of four (AMI is about $75,100, based on the city of Chicago). Winnetka's plan for inclusionary zoning says only a third of owner-occupied units must be available at 100 percent of AMI and the rest must be sold to people at less than 140 percent of AMI. Similarly, a third of rental units must be available at 60 percent of AMI and the rest of rental units must be rented to people at less than 100 percent of AMI.

Highland Park's affordable housing program has been met with mixed reactions -- some residents aren't aware of the program, and others volunteer their time to rehab the CPAH properties, Anthony and Blue said. But those in the community that support the spirit of the program have created an opportunity for private donations to CPAH. That might not be possible in Winnetka because of the difference in income eligibility, Anthony said.

"We’re able to do some private fundraising from community members because they want to support teachers and nurses and the people who cut their hair," Anthony said. "It’s a hard pitch to say, 'give me $100 to help someone that’s making $125,000 a year'."

An earlier version of this story stated that the Plan Commission was tasked to re-examine standards of affordability in Winnetka. That issue is one the village council is going to examine.

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