Battle in Winnetka over affordable housing plan

The community of Winnetka, Illinois is a northern suburb of Chicago that is quite wealthy: the Census says the median household income is $201,650 (in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars). The Chicago Tribune reports on a recent debate over a plan to introduce affordable housing to the wealthy suburb:

Winnetka’s plan calls for a land trust to provide for-sale and rental property to those who make far less than the median household income of $201,650.

Under Winnetka’s proposed plan, owner-occupied units must be affordable to households earning at least $75,000. Rentals must be affordable to those earning at least $45,000 or more. Current residents and senior citizens would receive priority.

A lot of suburban communities talk about affordable housing but few propose plans like this. It would be interesting to know how the local government was able to even put this plan forward.

The plan itself describes the change that has occurred in Winnetka over recent years as the community has become even more exclusive:

Over the past several decades, Winnetka has become less diverse in age and income, and it contains a more transient population, according to the plan. The report states that Winnetka lost much of its housing market diversity with the demolition of older, smaller homes that were replaced with larger, more expensive houses. Between 1980 and 2000, the village also lost 262 rental units — a 38 percent reduction — due to the conversion of downtown apartments into commercial offices.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of homes valued at less than $500,000 declined to 975 from 2,004, according to the report.

“Winnetka’s housing stock increasingly serves only one kind of resident — a family at the peak of its earning years and with school-age children,” the report states.

It sounds like teardowns have become quite an issue.

There has been some vocal opposition to the plan:

“There is plenty of affordable housing in neighboring communities,” said Carry Buck, chairman of WHOA, or Winnetka Home Owners Association. “Most people in Winnetka are conservative and they do not want more involvement from government.”

In a 25-page publication mailed to Winnetka residents last week, the homeowners association called the village Plan Commission’s proposal un-American, predicting it will lower property values, attract criminals and force residents to subsidize those who rely on “hand-outs.”

While this language might be more blunt than what one might typically find in such NIMBY debates, there are plenty of suburbanites who hold such views. Anything that might lower property values or might detract from the community that they bought into is seen as a threat.

The Tribune story suggests that an interfaith group is on the other side of the debate:

The lightning rod for complaints is the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, a Winnetka-based nonprofit that supports the plan. The center, which advocates for fair and affordable housing and investigates housing discrimination complaints, is accused by WHOA of infiltrating village boards and commissions with “social engineers” who depend on federal funding.

Interfaith’s executive director, Gail Schechter, described the opposing arguments as absurd.

“Social engineering is what got us to look the way we do,” she said. “The way Winnetka looks today is not just pure market forces.”

Sociologists would tend to fall on this side: the suburbs were not just created by people voting with their dollars and feet. Rather, the whole suburban system is upheld by a massive system of government policy (building highways, promoting homeownership, tax breaks or incentives for developers and those with financial resourcse) and cultural values (emphasis on the single-family home and automobiles, an anti-urban bias, a desire to move away from problematic areas, etc.).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In my own research on suburban communities, I found such open debates (where each side clearly lays out their intentions and/or fears) to be relatively rare. Additionally, such debates are rarely just about particular development proposals; rather, they are about the broader character of the community. Here, it sounds like the debate is also about the image and status of Winnetka: is it just a upper-class suburb or should it be something different?

0 thoughts on “Battle in Winnetka over affordable housing plan

  1. If you’re really interested in “how this plays out,” I can put you in touch with many people on both sides of the issue. I’m in favor of the Village’s AH plan….I think it’s modest and reasonable. I also think you hit it on the head….this is a rare open debate and about something deeper than a couple of $250k condos or rented coachhouses.

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  2. I am sort of shocked at the clumsy and overtly classist nature of the WHOA’s statements. You would think these people might be smart enough to tell the difference between this “affordable housing” measure from government subsidized housing. It’s a far cry from cabrini green or something. The notion that residents earning 75k a year (apparently a miserly income to these folks) would comprise a criminal element in the village is utterly laughable.

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  3. Pingback: Back to the burbs | Legally Sociable

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