Update: Zoning and Affordable Housing


Incentives or mandates: which tool will increase affordable housing in Chicago? On the one hand, Mayor Richard M. Daley wants to use density bonuses as incentives for developers to build affordable housing units. On the other side, several alderman are proposing strict mandatory requirements to ensure affordable units and better meet the needs of low-income residents.

At a May 26 press conference, the Mayor announced zoning changes that he says will have an impact on affordable housing in Chicago.

The Mayor explained that when he established what was aptly referred to as the Mayor’s Zoning Reform Commission, he did so with the view towards enhancing the quality of life in Chicago for all its citizens, or as he then put it: “both in our neighborhoods and downtown – for decades to come.”

The Mayor further said that the Zoning Reform Commission “spent countless hours on this project. They held seven community meetings in neighborhoods across the city, followed by six public workshops on specific zoning issues.” They heard from 300 organizations representing thousands of residents and businesses. They even set up a special Web site to keep the public informed and to solicit comments. Was anybody listening? How much did public input affect the mayor’s position on zoning reform, especially how it relates to affordable housing?

According to Peter Scales of the Department of Planning, the Mayor’s zoning reform plans will hopefully provide new incentives for developers of downtown residential buildings to also build affordable housing units in the city.

“We allow them to build an additional three square feet of market-rate residential space for every square foot of affordable housing they decide to include in their plans,” said Scales. “We will let them build a taller building or a building with more dwelling units if they agree to set a number of affordable units aside.”

Scales further explained that ‘density bonuses’ could also be earned by commercial builders, with contributions into an affordable housing fund. Scales added that “had the fund been in existence during the period from 1997 to 2002, at the height of the real estate boom, by this time we would have generated upwards of about 650 units of affordable housing together with about $25 million dollars into an affordable housing fund.”

There are other views promoted by activists and advocates for affordable housing. In previous editions of the Residents’ Journal, I have covered inclusionary zoning issues. Inclusionary zoning is said to better meet the housing needs of those who need housing the most. I decided to go back and ask some questions regarding the status of the affordable-housing ordinance put forth by Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4th) and Alderman Walter Burnett 27). This ordinance is favored by grassroots activists and advocacy groups.

Preckwinkle continues to be optimistic about her inclusionary zoning ordinance. She said the current zoning laws do not go far enough.

“The affordable housing incentives are all downtown, they are not in the neighborhoods. What we are looking for, of course, is an ordinance specifically requiring developers to include affordable housing units. That’s the set- aside ordinance which we re-introduced on May 6th of this year and which we hope will be heard some time soon,” she said.

Preckwinkle and Burnett’s ordinance would require 20% of units in new developments be set-aside for low-income residents.

Alderman Preckwinkle spoke at length in order to clearly distinguish the differences between what the need is and what is being offered in the Mayor’s plans for affordable housing. In February 2004, the City Council passed the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Ordinance. The Mayor’s ordinance only requires that affordable housing units be built when a city subsidy or when city owned property is part of the deal. However, the number of units produced by the Mayor’s plan “are negligible” said Preckwinkle.

“The Mayor’s Affordable Housing ordinance will have minimal impact,” she explained.

In a previous interview with Preckwinkle that I used in a Residents’ Journal article published in June 2003, she informed me that the need for affordable housing units hovered around 50,000 and that was just for metropolitan Chicago. She went on to say that many housing advocates were certain those figures would increase incrementally over time.

City of Chicago Housing Commissioner Jack Markowski strongly supports the mayor’s ordinance. At the time, Markowski testified at the City Council in favor of the ordinance. He said “the ordinance would provide 500 to 1,000 units of affordable housing per year,” according to Alderman Preckwinkle.

But Preckwinkle argued that the Mayor’s plan won’t meet the need that exists.

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