“Affordable” Housing Goes Mainstream

Evergreen Tower

By Mindy Tan

From the outside, Evergreen Tower 1 looks no different from any other apartment building. Located in the high-rent River North neighborhood of Chicago, it is within easy walking distance of groceries and other amenities.

Inside, a bank of computers and a couple of exercise machines line one wall of a sprawling community area which can easily seat 30 people; other rooms house a laundry area and a TV room. Staff members know the residents by name, and call to them cheerily, sometimes stopping to talk.

Yet the rents in this attractive residence are only $615 to $935 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Edith Burns has been a resident at Evergreen Tower 1 for five years. She said: “I know just about everybody here. I love the neighborhood; I lived right across the street for 30 years.”

Could this be “affordable” housing?

Evergreen Tower 1 is one of 13 housing projects built by UP Development LLC, an affordable-housing developer based in Chicago. The company’s portfolio includes eight affordable multifamily housing projects and five affordable supportive housing for individuals and families in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The company has two additional projects under development in the Chicago area. El Zocalo will incorporate a dance studio for the Ballet Folklorico community dance program in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Parkview, in surburban Arlington Heights, is a 45-unit mixed-income housing project for individuals and families.

A third project under construction is Westhaven, in Columbus, Ohio, which will feature 92 affordable units for working and multigenerational families.

PhilHaven, in Wheeling, Ill., is an example of affordable supportive housing for individuals with disabilities. The 50-unit development has on-site support staff, which includes one live-in resident support specialist and three to four case managers who are scheduled based on the caseload and needs of individual residents.

The market-rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment at the project is between $920 and $1,400, said Alex Pereira, a project analyst at UP Development. In the case of PhilHaven, 34 of the units are subsidized through Section 8 vouchers from the Housing Authority of Cook County, three vouchers are from the Regional Housing Initiative, and 12 vouchers were originally subsidized by the Division of Mental Health but were recently replaced by 811 subsidies from the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

“So if you make $1,000 a month, you’re only paying $300 per month. And if your rent is $1,400 a month, the subsidies will cover that difference, which is $1,100 in this case,” said Pereira. “That helps us too because we are able to charge a rent figure that is near market value and that increases our revenue for property maintenance and other services. But from the residents’ perspective, it is still affordable housing.”

Evergreen Tower 1 is not considered supportive housing. But on-site service coordinators plan activities, such as bingo, African drums and Zumba dancing for residents.

These service coordinators, who have been trained by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also link residents with service providers who can provide information or services related to their needs, including Medicare benefits and writing a will. A bus provides transportation for grocery store visits and other outings.

“When I started in affordable housing I quickly realized that within the deep sea of need, I wanted to fight for the most vulnerable of all households, hence my commitment to supportive housing,” said Jessica Berzac, one of the founders of UPD.

UPD was started in 2014. Berzac was working for the other co-founder, Cullen Davis, at Daveri Development for several years before they started UPD. The six-person team has a portfolio of over 400 multifamily housing units and about 300 affordable supportive housing units.

One of the larger challenges faced by affordable housing developers is “NIMBY”, or the not-in-my-backyard attitude of residents, particularly in affluent suburbs. When PhilHaven was first proposed in 2012, the Wheeling village board voted against it, citing concerns about zoning, flooding, safety, and the number of upset neighbors. The board later changed its position after the developer, then Daveri Development, filed a lawsuit.

“If you look at our mixed income housing, you can’t tell it’s affordable housing,” Pereira said. “So if you are a regular professional in Arlington Heights, and you are looking for a nice apartment downtown, you might walk past our project and think ‘oh, that’s a pretty nice building and the rent is decent.'”

A lot of concerns stem from misconceptions, with long-time neighborhood residents worried that affordable housing residents might be dangerous or have mental issues, he said.

“Usually once people move in, these problems go away because they realize they are just regular people like everybody else,” Pereira said.

Photo at top: Evergreen Tower is an affordable multifamily housing project targeted at elderly residents, located in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. (Mindy Tan/MEDILL)