New data portal documents developers’ compliance with affordable housing rules | News | Chicago Reader

New data portal documents developers’ compliance with affordable housing rules 

Chicago’s Department of Housing takes a major step toward transparency.

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click to enlarge AFFORDABLE REQUIREMENTS ORDINANCE DASHBOARD
  • Affordable Requirements Ordinance Dashboard

This week Chicago’s revamped Department of Housing rolls out an online dashboard with maps and statistics on developers' compliance with the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance—a law that's meant to spur construction of new affordable housing units. Users can explore a map of all the developments that have "triggered" the ARO since 2008 through requests for zoning changes or city funding or purchases of city land below market prices. The dashboard shows the number of affordable units planned, in progress, or constructed by community area. A second component maps data about the amount and uses of in-lieu fees generated by developments—these are fees developers pay if they want to avoid constructing any affordable housing at all. 

Though the availability of the online portal (accessible at chicago.gov/ARO) is a major step toward transparency about the city's flagship inclusionary zoning and affordable housing development program, the portal also underscores the shortcomings of the ARO. The program has only provided 444 units of affordable housing over the course of the last decade, and 75 percent of those units have been studios and one-bedroom apartments, which aren’t geared toward families. For context, according to the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies, there’s a roughly 120,000-unit shortfall of affordable housing in Chicago. Only 28 of the units constructed under the ARO have been geared toward the lowest-income Chicagoans—those making less than half of the area median income (for example, about $44,500 for a family of four). 

An additional 602 affordable housing units are currently under construction in the city, 3,148 have received city approval for future construction, and 161 more have been proposed. According to the dashboard, most of the units built and proposed are concentrated in community areas ringing the Loop: Near North, Lincoln Park, West Town, the Near West Side, and the Near South Side.

"Most of this data was already public, but it was in multiple locations, and some of it was in PDFs rather than an interactive user-friendly format," explains housing commissioner Marisa Novara, a longtime affordable housing advocate who was a vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council before taking this job under Mayor Lori Lightfoot. "Our view is Chicagoans should be able to easily understand what the city is doing regarding affordable housing." In addition to the maps and charts in the online portal, the underlying data can be downloaded and analyzed through Excel or other software.

The goal of the ARO is to incentivize private developers to construct affordable housing. If a developer wants a zoning change from the city to add ten or more residential units than what is already allowed on a site, or wants city funding for a project, or wants to build housing on a piece of city land purchased at below market value, the city requires a percentage of the planned units in that development to be reserved for affordable housing (the percentage required has varied through three iterations of the ARO since 2003 and depends on the part of the city where the development is planned). These affordable units can be built "on-site" in the development, or "off-site" within a two-mile radius. 

If developers don't want to build affordable housing they have the option of paying the city in-lieu fees for each unconstructed unit. The new data portal shows that since 2008, the city has collected more than $124 million in in-lieu fees in its Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund. (There were no payments to the fund between 2009 and 2011 as construction slowed during the recession.) About $102.5 million from the fund has been spent to subsidize rents and fund new affordable housing construction. In some cases the money is channeled to the Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which permanently subsidizes units for lower-income residents of otherwise market-rate developments. In other cases, the city issues grants to help affordable housing developers close funding gaps. The data portal shows that much of this money has stayed in gentrifying neighborhoods like Uptown, Near North, and Albany Park. While it's possible to see how many units have been subsidized through the Low-Income Housing Trust Fund over the years, the dashboard currently doesn't show how many units of affordable housing were built with the help of city grants to developers. This is because in some cases the city might fund, say, a ten-unit project nearly in its entirety and in others chip in a small percentage toward its construction.

For years, affordable housing advocates and government watchdog groups have been combing publicly released reports and using Freedom of Information Act requests—often a cumbersome and time-consuming process—to get the data now accessible in the online dashboard. "I love that they produced the data portal," says Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of community organizations advocating for affordable housing and desegregation. But, she adds, the new portal could be even more useful if the city indicated the exact locations of the affordable housing units (especially those off-site from the projects that created them) and gave users information on how to submit rental applications. "If we're trying to use ARO to transcend Chicago's segregation, we have to connect that final dot to the people searching for housing," she says. "I'm always thinking about the end user, the person all these programs are supposed to serve. Are we making it work for them?"

Novara says "that is a goal we'd like to get to," too. The department will explore ways to add apartment location and availability information to the portal in the future.

The absence of transparency around the ARO has made it difficult for people not only to find the affordable housing it's supposed to be creating but also to hold the Department of Planning and Development, which long controlled the program, accountable for its implementation. This has been especially true when it comes to the use of in-lieu fees. 

"Before I came to the city, I heard a lot from fellow folks in affordable housing: 'We don't know where the in-lieu fees go, we don't know what happens to that money,'" Novara says. "This should not be a mystery." A 2017 audit by Chicago's Office of Inspector General found that, among other irregularities, $4.5 million had gone missing from the in-lieu fee fund without explanation. It has remained missing as of a February update to the audit, though the city has disputed the OIG's calculations. 

It's possible that the public availability and accessibility of this data will help generate momentum behind proposed reforms to the ARO. In addition to the online portal, the Department of Housing is also organizing a task force to review and improve the city's affordable housing policies. More than 200 applications were received for the 15 to 20 spots on the task force, which is expected to begin convening in December. Novara says that as they consider potential task force members, "we're looking for gender, racial, geographic diversity, technical expertise, lived experience, and we're looking for people with the ability to balance a strong point of view with an open mind." The task force will be one of several ways for residents to offer feedback on the ARO and other affordable housing issues, she adds.

Meanwhile, dozens of community groups and nearly 20 aldermen have signed on to a proposal called the "Development for All" ordinance spearheaded by members of the Chicago Housing Initiative coalition. It would, among other things: eliminate in-lieu fees, forcing market-rate developers to actually build affordable housing; increase the percentage of affordable housing units developers are required to build in projects slated for high-income areas; and mandate more family-size units. 

The ARO, and zoning laws in general, are a unique weapon to combat segregation and disinvestment built by racist government policies and reinforced by decades of private investment patterns in American cities. The U.S. Supreme Court has reinforced cities' prerogative to use zoning laws to limit, structure, and set the conditions for real estate development, making them a rare example of local government laws that can trump private property rights (as long as they're not discriminatory in intent or impact). "If we think about the power to address segregation through this tool, it's immense and unparalleled," Levinger says. 

Lightfoot ran on a platform promising reforms to the ARO and a more aggressive approach to affordable housing development. The establishment of an independent Department of Housing and the rollout of the data portal appear to be steps toward fulfilling those promises. v

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Novara as the former head of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

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