A Tale of Two Milwaukee Avenues

For me, affordability has always been and it continues to be at the top of the priority list. Having grown up in a family with little means, I am especially sensitive to the profound impacts that affordable housing opportunities provide.
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In Chicago, on Milwaukee Avenue specifically between Ashland and Kedzie Avenues, a contrasting tale is being told. It is a tale of fulfilled opportunity and of opportunity lost.

This vibrant commercial corridor is at the epicenter of a dramatic development wave that is crossing neighborhoods and wards. However, these geographic and political boundaries should be irrelevant when it comes to the issue of affordable housing.

In Chicago, there is a great need for affordable housing. According to a July, 2014 Chicago Tribune article referencing the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, about a third of homeowners in the Chicago area and just more than half of renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Moreover, 14 percent of local homeowners and 30 percent of renters are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on housing.

The renewed construction boom, that started in the past few years and continues today, provides a real opportunity to address the very real affordable housing deficit in Chicago.

City of Chicago aldermen have unique jurisdiction over zoning matters in their wards and concurrently have the ability to facilitate affordable housing opportunities into their wards. Under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) when developers receive a zoning change and construct 10 or more residential units, 10 percent of the units must be affordable. Developers can meet this requirement by providing on-site, affordable units or by paying an in-lieu fee of $100,000 per required unit into a housing fund. (Under the revised ARO ordinance that takes effect October 2015, in-lieu fees increase to $175,000 for projects downtown, $125,000 for projects in higher-income areas and $50,000 in low to moderate income areas).

Understanding the need for affordable units in the 1st Ward, I strongly urge developers to provide their ARO-required affordable units on-site, in their new-construction buildings. Although developers strongly prefer opting out of their affordable requirement by choosing the less-costly in-lieu payment option, developers have been very accommodating in providing all of their required units on-site in the 1st Ward. In fact, some developers have agreed to voluntarily exceed their 10 percent requirement and are providing an even higher percentage of affordable units in their projects.

Under the updated ARO law passed earlier this year, the City of Chicago is providing density bonuses for affordable units near transit stations. I strongly agree with this policy, which allows developers to offset the significant costs of providing on-site affordable units by increasing the amount of market-rate units that can be constructed. The City Council also just passed the enhanced Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance, which acknowledges not only the economic benefits of taller and higher-density buildings by transit stations, but also reinforces their intrinsic value and utility as a mechanism for increasing the number of affordable housing units throughout the City of Chicago.

As the author of the original TOD ordinance, I enthusiastically supported the updated ordinance, because I truly believe that density is the friend of affordability. I am proud of my record in creating affordable units in the 1st Ward, many within Transit Oriented Development projects. In the past two years, the 1st Ward has the second highest number of units committed under the ARO. As of September 2015, developers have legally committed to providing 59 new, affordable units, with 22 ARO units recently added at the 2255-93 N. Milwaukee development site.

For me, affordability has always been and it continues to be at the top of the priority list. Having grown up in a family with little means, I am especially sensitive to the profound impacts that affordable housing opportunities provide.

Yet, despite this established framework for increasing the affordable housing pool in our city, many opportunities are being lost. Sadly, for too many developers and aldermen, affordability is at the bottom of their priority list.

Last week, I voted against a zoning change for a project that would allow for the construction of an 85 unit, 5.5 story development on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Street, a few blocks from my ward and sandwiched between two broad 1st Ward stretches of Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park-Bucktown neighborhood, which contain new developments with the required amount of affordable units on-site. (Link to Map)

Unfortunately, this Milwaukee/Leavitt development will have ZERO... ZERO affordable housing units on-site, despite a request from a community group citing the lack of affordable units in the project. Although the project was just approved by the full City Council, I believe it is a lost opportunity to increase affordable housing in the Wicker Park-Bucktown neighborhood, where already-steep housing prices keep increasing and many families are being priced out of their community. [Ironically, this same developer is developing a similar -- in height -- (six stories) and much less dense (60 units), project in the same neighborhood. However, this project falls within the 1st Ward, so the developer has worked with me to provide the 10 percent affordable units on site. In a recent DNAinfo article published on September 10th, it was incorrectly alleged that the 1st Ward exchanges affordability for more height and density. Although we have approved larger projects than the Milwaukee/ Leavitt project in my ward, we have also approved less dense projects (as described above). No matter the height or size, my strong stance on affordable units on-site holds true].

While some in the Chicago City Council are very much aware of the need for affordable housing and are proactive in bringing affordable housing into their wards, others prefer to pay lip service to affordability by failing, or refusing, to increase the number of affordable units in their own wards. Some of these same individuals also proclaim to support affordable housing and have even co-sponsored the Keeping the Promise Ordinance (a policy I re-introduced in June to ensure that the Chicago Housing Authority fulfills its mandate to create more affordable housing units in Chicago) yet they do little when it comes to encouraging the creation of on-site affordable units through the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO).

Talk is cheap. Aldermen who proclaim that they are champions of affordable housing and then allow developers to pay into a fund, rather than build affordable units on-site in their own wards, are not being true to their lofty rhetoric.

When I became alderman, I was acutely aware of the affordability problem, and I have worked to increase affordable housing opportunities in my ward. Affordable housing contributes to our ward's diversity, which is one of our ward's greatest strengths. I have a very diverse ward in terms of race, ethnicity, and socio economic status and I wouldn't have it any other way. This is why I continue to be a strong proponent of affordable housing not only citywide, but also in my ward.

As the greatest city in the world, we need ALL of our neighborhoods to have affordable housing options, so a wide socio-economic range of people can live in our great neighborhoods.

It shouldn't be a tale of two Milwaukee Avenues, if we as aldermen keep our promise to serve those in need, and if we remain true to our proclamations of supporting more affordable housing in our city. Public posturing does nothing to provide tangible, affordable housing units in our individual wards, where they are sorely needed. It also does nothing to address the city's affordable housing deficit, which is truly a sad tale of lost opportunity.

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