An affluent suburb makes room

An affluent suburb makes room – housing in Highland Park, Illinois

Jocelyn Prince

Some consider Highland Park a suburban paradise: clean and pristine with tree-lined curving streets, sprawling homes, upscale stores and boutiques, low crime rates, and some of the best schools in the state.

But many people who work in the affluent North Shore suburb, like 24-year-old Matt Patterson, can’t afford to live there.

Patterson recently smoothed his white cloth apron and thick black hair and gestured toward the front door of the upscale Bella Via Ristorante, where he works. “Apartments across the street go for $1,315 per month. Condos around here are ridiculous. There are few realistic options for young, single people,” he said.

To make room for people like Patterson as well as seniors, single-parent families and the disabled, Highland Park officials are promoting the development of more affordable apartment complexes, condominiums, town houses and single-family homes.

However, officials said these new policies will primarily assist those living at moderate-income levels, and are not likely to change the racial landscape of Highland Park or help poor families.

“It’s a different notion of affordability. I don’t think race is a factor,” said Paul Fischer, a Lake Forest College professor specializing in housing policy and urban politics. “They are thinking about municipal employees, the elderly and the children of people who live there.”

Councilman Steve Mandel said the city is most concerned with keeping current residents, rather than increasing diversity or bringing new people to town.

Twenty-three miles north of Chicago, Highland Park has a median home value of $380,000 and median household income of $100,967, according to the 2000 census. The city is 86 percent white, 9 percent Latino, 2 percent black and 2 percent Asian.

In January 2001, the city adopted the “Affordable Housing Needs and Implementation Plan,” which outlined strategles to develop affordable housing–rental units ranging from less than $700 to $1,700 a month and home prices ranging from less than $85,000 to $240,000. One of the strategles was “inclusionary zoning,” a policy requiring developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in residential developments.

The city’s plan and housing commissions established a subcommittee to examine research, consult with experts and discuss how similar communities have updated their zoning laws. Its goal is to draft an ordinance by 2003.

Highland Park is the first municipality in the Chicago area to consider inclusionary zoning, according to Jo Patton of Businesses and Professional People for the Public Interest, a national law and policy center acting as a consultant to the subcommittee.

The Affordable Housing Plan notes that many who work in Highland Park, including service industry workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters, cannot afford to live in the city. The plan also shows that an estimated 7,000 employees at Highland Park firms earn less than $50,000 annually, and 90 percent of them live outside the community.

“There is a general problem in this area,” said Mark Stein, an Illinois Education Association field representative in North Shore School District 112, which includes Highland Park. “Most of the new teachers are young people. A first-year teacher with only a B.A. degree will start at $31,652 per year. A lot of them have a long drive in from other areas. Some come from as far away as Wisconsin.”

“I would live here if I could,” said Ivan Villavicen, a 31-year-old Latino who earns $40,000 a year at the Highland Park Post Office. He has commuted there from Chlcago the past eight years. “In Highland Park, if the housing prices don’t get you, the taxes will.”

Employers interviewed in 1999 by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago reported that affordable housing would improve their ability to hire and retain employees. The lack of affordable housing increases costs for businesses, the employers said.

“They pay for turnover, tardiness, tired morale and extra recruitment expenses when people leave. That’s an economic issue and also a problem in terms of community stability and quality of life,” said Robin Snyderman, housing director of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit public policy advocacy group.

Lee Smith, Highland Park’s senior planner, insisted that current zoning codes do not prohibit the construction of affordable housing such as high-density apartment complexes. Developers can also build single-family homes on lots as small as 7,260 to 10,000 square feet.

The city first identified affordable housing as a goal in 1973, Smith said. But officials took little action until rapid changes like rising real estate prices and teardowns of affordable housing units resurrected the issue in the 1990s, he said.

Based on a map of Highland Park demolitions, UIC researchers estimated that at least 324 affordable rental units were lost between 1990 and 1999. Also, the median sale price of a home in Highland Park increased by 19.9 percent between 1993 and 1999.

The subcommittee has discussed several options for an inclusionary zoning ordinance. Developers that do not comply might have to pay a “fee-in-lieu” of the actual housing or to dedicate a portion of their land to the city housing commission or a community land trust.

Other statutes may establish design and building requirements to ensure that affordable units are not significantly less desirable or detached from the higher priced units.

“Affordable housing means a home that is a home, not just a place to put a cot and have a burner for a stove,” said Councilman Peter K. Koukos.

But developers would not have to provide the same amenities found in a $500,000 penthouse, like ceramic tile or marbletopped kitchen counters, in a lesser priced apartment or condo, said Patton.

While officials claim they have overwhelming support from the community for inclusionary zoning, it could be too early to tell.

“It’s in a very theoretical and policy stage right now,” said Betsy Lassar, a former member of the city’s housing commission who now serves as a consultant for it. “We don’t know the reactions we’re going to get. I’m sure that individuals are likely to have some concerns.”

Many communities worry about seeing crime rate increases or living alongside people of a different race when discussions arise about mandated affordable housing, according to leaders in land use and real estate development surveyed by the Urban Land Institute and Chicago District Council, nonprofit research organizations.

But Highland Park residents aren’t concerned, according to city leaders.

“I happen to be a conservative Republican, but it seems to me that we are better off if we have a community that represents the world,” said Koukos. “I don’t know of anyone who thinks this should be a homogenous community.”

Snyderman called Highland Park an example for the rest of the area. “Suburban mayors around the region are looking at what they can do to improve the range of quality housing options available at all price points,” she said. “Highland Park has taken on a leadership role.”

Heather Parker helped research this article.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group