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Mayor’s Plan To Require More Affordable Units In Residential Developments Earns Key City Approval

The Lightfoot administration's plan would require developers building in most parts of the city to include 20 percent affordable units, up from the current 10 percent.

An apartment building along Wilson Avenue in Uptown as seen on December 20, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — An effort to boost the number of required affordable units within residential developments has earned the backing of a key city committee, though some aldermen say the plan doesn’t do enough to fight displacement and gentrification.

The city’s Housing Committee on Tuesday approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to overhaul the city’s affordable requirements ordinance.

Currently, the city requires developers building 10 or more units to set aside at least 10 percent of the units as affordable. The ordinance applies to developers who need a zoning change to build, are building in a Planned Development, receive city assistance or are building on city-owned land.

Lightfoot’s plan would require those developers in most parts of the city to earmark 20 percent of their units as affordable, instead of 10 percent.

The mayor’s ordinance would also reduce options for developers to pay into a fund supporting affordable housing in the city in exchange for not including affordable units in their projects. Lightfoot’s proposal would reduce the number of units that can be bought out from 75 percent of the affordable requirement to 50 percent.

Current affordability rules require developers building affordable units off-site to construct them within a 2-mile radius of the larger development. Under the proposal, those off-site affordable units can be built in any part of the city facing displacement and gentrification.

The affordable housing overhaul seeks to address a need for 120,000 affordable housing units in the city, the mayor has said.

The ordinance will now be considered at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. The measure passed the committee by a vote of 15-3. Alds. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Anthony Napolitano (41st) and Maria Hadden (49th) voted against the measure.

Sigcho-Lopez and Hadden said the mayor’s ordinance doesn’t do enough to fulfill a need of family-sized affordable housing and units for very low-income residents.

Both aldermen have signed on to a competing affordable housing ordinance that would mandate 30 percent affordable units in gentrifying neighbors and would eliminate the in-lieu payment system entirely. Sigcho-Lopez and Hadden said the mayor’s ordinance is progress on the issue but more is needed to reverse displacement and housing insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic.

“This is a big step, but is it enough?” Hadden said at the meeting. “Where we’re falling short … is really getting into the level of affordability that we need to see for our residents.”

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said the revised ordinance incentivizes developers to include more family-sized housing, but she said it is hard to mandate that type of housing in developments that are mostly studios and one-bedrooms. Under the administration’s proposal, all affordable units built off-site must have at least two bedrooms.

“This is not the only way we get family-sized units in neighborhoods,” Novara said. “This is one tool.”

Other aldermen agreed more needs to be done on family-sized affordable housing and other issues, but they said the administration’s proposal is progress on a pressing issue.

“I think we need to keep pushing,” Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said. “At the same time, we need to know when we have a win.”

Tuesday’s vote wrapped a Housing Committee meeting that began last week but was postponed in the wake of city officials releasing video of a police officer killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo. In a presentation last week, the Housing Department gave an overview of how the new affordable requirement would work.

Take a 200-unit high-rise in the South Loop: Under the current rules, at least 20 units would be set aside as affordable, with five required to be built on site. The remaining 15 could be built within 2 miles of the development.

Under the new rules, at least 40 units would be set aside as affordable. Ten units would be required on site and another 10 could be built in “high-cost or gentrifying communities” across the city. The remaining 20 units would be eligible to be paid for through in-lieu fees.

In a Lincoln Square low-rise with 40 one-bedroom units, the required affordable units would increase from four to eight. The developer could comply with the ordinance by including additional bedroom units, or units priced at a lower cost, tied to a percentage of the area median income.

In areas categorized as at-risk for displacement, like Humboldt Park, the off-site units must be built within 1 mile of the development.

“If you need a subsidy to live affordably, we believe you should have just as many options of where to live as those who do not need a subsidy. It’s as simple as that,” Novara said.

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