The city spends nearly $1.7 million on affordable housing real estate

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Evanston City Council members on Tuesday agreed to buy a number of derelict residential lots on the west side and give the city control of the site to develop affordable housing in the future.

On June 27, after the 5th Circuit Councilman urged the city to act quickly, councilors voted 8 to 1 to purchase land on Jackson Ave. 1917-25 and 1413-25 Emerson Street for $1.675 million.

Officials will tap two sources to pay for the purchase, allocating $1 million of the $2.3 million now available from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and an additional $675,000 use the West Evanston Tax Increment Financing or TIF district, which now brings in about $1.8 million a year.

At the June 27 meeting, Councilor Bobby Burns, in whose 5th Ward the properties are located, urged councilors to go ahead with the purchase or risk the properties being sold at market prices and developed.

“The fact is, if we don’t get involved tonight, it’s going to be sold to a developer who will put 90% market and 10% affordable housing — either on-site or off-site,” Burns said.

While discussing the issue, Burns said the city had previously reached a remediation agreement with owner Victoria Kathrein because of the poor condition of the properties.

In the agreement, Burns said, the owner agreed to either demolish the properties or develop them within a specified period of time.

Since then, he said, a number of developers have approached him and the property owner, expressing interest in developing the lots.

According to a statement from city officials on the matter, Kathrein is “aware of Councilor Burns’ desire to purchase the properties” to develop them into affordable housing.

“She is awaiting a formal offer from the City of Evanston,” the memo said.

“I worked with the landowner to negotiate a deal that would give the city control of these lots so we can ensure that the affordability that is there is maintained and we also have the ability to expand it,” Burns said.

Burns claimed he spoke to property owners in and around those lots who said they were in favor of the move. In addition, there will be a future discussion with the community about the plan, he told councillors.

“This is an acquisition business,” he said, “but we’re not going to make any decisions without a robust human engagement process and (request for quote) process and whatever.”

But Councilor Clare Kelly of the 1st Circuit, the only councilor who voted against the purchase agreement, claimed the discussion should go ahead.

“Again, I love the concept here,” Kelly said. “But I think there is a lot missing here that could easily be specified and fixed in the resolution [to go with the purchase agreement] – like the ratio of affordability [of future units]whether it is property [or for] Build or lease assets. I think if you move in partnership with the neighbors we will have a successful project.”

Speakers raise questions

Several speakers went further during the public comment portion of the meeting, urging council members to withhold action.

Lesley Williams, president of the Community Alliance for Better Government, said the group has a number of concerns, such as transparency and the involvement of “big governments” in the proposal.

“This seems like an extremely high price for property in terrible condition that needs to be demolished,” she said.

“Has the city appraised the property? Has the city already reached out to developers regarding this property and what did they find out? Are there actually other people who are interested in the probable market value?” She asked.

“I’m also really curious as to why the property could become such a nuisance to the neighborhood,” Williams said. “It feels like rewarding an irresponsible property owner with a good sale.”

Another speaker, Trisha Connelly, noted that about a month ago “trees were cut down all over this property.

“And I think what really amazes me is … it’s kind of interesting that you’re making this possible deal,” she told council members.

Another speaker, Jeffrey Masters, a local resident who lives on the 1900 block of Wesley Avenue, supported the council’s development.

“I think affordable housing is a really important element for Evanston. I think to get good affordable housing it takes governments to have the land for it.”

He acknowledged that residents had previously had issues with developments in the area in terms of “the height and the real attempt to keep the neighborhood’s character. I think we still have a strong feeling that we want to keep something sensible, but we also feel that working with the city would be preferable to working with the current owner.”

Several council members also expressed their support, citing the high priority the city has placed on creating affordable housing.

Councilor Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke of his great-grandmother and members of other black families who moved to Evanston and worked together to provide affordable housing for others who could not make it on their own.

“And I can’t think of a better way to honor that legacy,” he said.

Councilor Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, also said she strongly supports the proposal compared to an initiative to develop affordable housing in an underused city parking lot in her South Evanston borough.

By staying in control, she said, “This is how we’re able to design and describe the type of units and the size of units that we need,” in the community.

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