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Fifth Ward affordable housing plan relies on city-church land swap

The cost of living is on the rise at Evanston. Longtime Evanstonians are being displaced to surrounding suburbs, and Fifth Ward residents are among those most at risk, said Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns.

Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns speaks at Thursday’s meeting. Credit: Gina Castro

“The cost of living in Evanston is too high,” Burns said to an audience of Fifth Ward residents.

“While I’m here, we are going to gain more affordable housing units; we will win this battle against displacement, gentrification, period.”

On Thursday night, Mt. Pisgah Ministry and the Housing Opportunity Development Corp. (HODC) presented a joint proposal to add more affordable housing rental units in the Fifth Ward.

More than 40 residents filled the pews of the Mt. Pisgah Ministry to hear the revitalization project proposal for 1805-1815 Church St.

The proposal to build a five-story residential building with 44 affordable rental units and underground parking would include retail space of 3,000 square feet that could fit two or more storefronts as well.

In addition, Mt. Pisgah Ministry would build a two-story place of worship on the same block. The city currently owns the property at 1805 Church St. and 1708-10 Darrow Ave. Mt. Pisgah Ministry owns 1813-15 Church St.

Mt. Pisgah and HODC are proposing that Mt. Pisgah swaps land with the city. The new church would be built on the city’s corner lot, and, in turn, HODC would take over the remaining parcels of land on the block and pay the property taxes.

Mt. Pisgah Ministry will not ask for city funds to build its new church, said the Rev. Clifford Wilson, the senior pastor. The church’s role in the partnership with the nonprofit HODC is just to offer the land swap with the city.

HODC would be the developer, owner and manager of the five-story residential building. HODC Executive Director Richard Koenig estimated the building would cost $22 million in total. Koenig said he plans to ask the city for $4 million of that, with the other $18 million covered through other fundraising efforts.

From left: Mt. Pisgah Senior Pastor Clifford Wilson, Council Members Bobby Burns and Richard Koenig of HODC. Credit: Gina Castro

For decades, Mt. Pisgah Ministry has dreamed of transforming the vacant lot feet away from its front steps, Wilson said. Mt. Pisgah has stood on Church Street for the past 30 years, and it has served the west side of Evanston for more than 40 years.

In 2021, Mt. Pisgah joined forces with HODC, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing in the suburbs. It’s been hoping to develop a rental project for low-income families on this part of Church Street since 2005, but didn’t have support from the city council at the time, Koenig said.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, some in the audience expressed enthusiasm for the project. Former members of the since-dissolved Evanston Community Development Corp. recalled their efforts to bring affordable housing to the 1800 block of Church Street. The group began developing a plan as early as 2004 but the city council rejected the plan in 2006.

“I’m very encouraged by this project,” said Keith Banks, an affordable housing developer and advocate and a former member of the corporation. “We had a vision of this happening 15 years ago, and now it’s happening. This project is necessary. It’s needed. And it’s right on time.”

Other residents questioned just how affordable the units would be, a concern that also surfaced at a 2020 ward meeting. HODC says it will charge rent for the units below market value to comply with rules for the government funding it receives. For example, rent for a one-bedroom unit would be $600 to $800. Three-bedroom units would be $900 to $1,100. HODC pledges to keep its rents affordable for at least the next 30 years, Koenig said.

Roberta Hudson speaks at the meeting. Credit: Gina Castro

An issue resident Roberta Hudson raised is that residents wouldn’t own their units, which would only be available for one-year leases.

“My concern is the people should have a stake in where they live,” Hudson said. “We have very little land left in the Fifth Ward for helping our community, and it seems like all kinds of developers are coming in, taking over the land.”

Koenig said there would be no limit to how many times tenants could renew their leases.

There is a long road ahead for the project. Next week, HODC is slated to present the proposal to the Land Use Commission. If approved, the proposal would then be passed on to the Planning and Development Committee. And ultimately, the City Council must vote on the proposal.

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