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Developer of Bucktown TOD Grilled Over Lack of On-Site Affordable Housing

1st Ward Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno gracefully – given the circumstances – moderates the meeting.
1st Ward Alder Proco "Joe" Moreno speaks in 2014 about a TOD proposal in his ward in Logan Square that would include affordable housing units.

Yesterday, the Chicago Plan Commission approved River North-based developer Vequity's proposal for a new transit-oriented development in Bucktown. This puts the plan for a six-story building with 44 units and ten car parking spaces at 1920 N. Milwaukee Ave. on track for approval by the full City Council. However, it didn't happen without a heated debate about the lack of on-site affordable housing in the project.

The architect, David Brininstool of Brininstool and Lynch, seemed to succeed in persuading the commissioners that the building would successfully reactive the southeast corner of Western and Milwaukee Avenues, currently a shuttlered title loan store. He argued that the new tower would "celebrate the corner" with more foot traffic and transit-oriented retail. But the developer doesn't plan to include required affordable units in the building, and the developer wasn't able to convince all the members of the commission that this decision is justified.

According to the city's affordable housing law, developers that request a zoning change or receive a subsidy from the city, including tax-increment financing, are required to provide ten percent of the units – 20 percent if they get a subsidy – at an affordable sales price or monthly rent. Those details are managed by the city and adjusted annually based on Census figures, and represent what should be affordable to an individual or family of different sizes earning 60 percent or less of the region's median income.

The developer can either build the affordable units on-site, pay a fee into the city's low-income housing trust fund to build the affordable units elsewhere, or do a combination of the two. Before the city's Affordable Requirements Ordinance was revised last year, simply paying into the trust fund was always an option, unless the local alder insisted on on-site affordable units.

Now, however, developers must build at least a quarter of the require affordable units on-site, or else in a different building within one mile of the development getting the zoning change or subsidy. The other three-quarters of the affordable units can be bought out for a fee per unit. The fee depends on the building's location.

Vequity, like all of the other developers that had their projects approved at yesterday's plan commission meeting, applied for approval before the new affordable housing ordinance took effect. They've opted to pay $100,000 into the trust fund for each of the five affordable-designated units they're not building, a move that was condoned by local alder Scott Waguespack (32nd).

A rendering of the proposed building at 1920 N Milwaukee Ave that the Chicago Plan Commission approved on Thursday, January 21, 2016. Image: Vequity

However, some of the commissioners, and two alders, weren't pleased to hear this. Alder Proco "Joe" Moreno (1st Ward), who's not a member of the commission, praised the building's transit-oriented location and architectural design. But Moreno, who always requires developers seeking a zoning change to provide some or all of the affordable units on-site, scolded Waguespack, who wasn't present, for not holding Vequity to the same standard.

Moreno called the lack of affordable units in the Bucktown tower plan a "tragedy" and claimed that, within two blocks in either direction from the site on Milwaukee, there are three buildings that Moreno had approved on the condition that they include on-site affordable units. That includes 2211 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2237 N. Milwaukee Ave., and 1759 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Moreno added that, even though the new tower won't be located within the 1st Ward, he'll be blamed for the lack of affordable units because the building is located along the border of the ward. Alder Waguespack didn't respond to a request for comment before publication, but I'll update the post if he responds.

Three commissioners voted against the proposal because of the lack of on-site affordable housing. Juan Carlos Linares, the CEO of Latin United Community Housing Association, said that in Bucktown "a lot of people have been pushed out, and I know that from my day job." He said the Vequity proposal fails to address the displacement issue.

49th Ward Alder Joe Moore, another commission member who voted no against Vequity's proposal, also cited the lack of affordable housing. Moore said that Rogers Park, the neighborhood he represents, is characterized by having a lot of affordable housing, and that other neighborhoods needed to have affordable housing as well. He asked the developer, "Why aren't you building the affordable units like the other Milwaukee Avenue projects?"

Other commissioners asked similar questions of Vequity, as well as another developer proposing a project earlier in the meeting. Each developer said that they would have to take another look at their economic analysis for the buildings, which didn't seem to satisfy the commissioners.

Before the vote was taken, Commissioner Linda Searl cautioned the other commissioners that "one of our jobs is to vote the law." In other words, to approve or disapprove of a project because of how well it does or doesn't meet the many city ordinances that regulate housing, building design, sustainable building practices, and landscaping, among other project characteristics.

"The law is something different right now than what we...morally want. We're going to look at the Affordable Requirements Ordinance as it exists." She closed her statement with, "I feel we're moving away from our real job as commissioners."

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