Living as the only Section 8 resident in a wealthy suburb

Mary Schmich tells the story of Winnetka’s sole Section 8 resident:

In a Chicago suburb where million-dollar homes are common and the median household income exceeds $200,000, Miranda held a rare distinction for a while: He was the only person in town with a Section 8 housing choice voucher.

With his large belly and his mustache, his T-shirt and his jeans, he was a notable presence in the village. He liked to be out and about — staying inside depressed him — and his subsidized one-bedroom apartment on Elm Street put him in the heart of Winnetka’s action, meaning close to the Metra station, a bookstore, a Peet’s, a Starbucks, restaurants and boutiques, most of which he couldn’t afford.

He was often spotted with a big coffee cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other, maybe sitting on a park bench. He liked going to the library and, in the summer, relaxing by the lake…

Having a stable home of his own in a tranquil place offered him some peace that life otherwise denied him.

As much as residential segregation by race and ethnicity is present in the suburbs, this highlights another aspect: segregation by social class. According to the Census, Winnetka has over 12,000 residents, is very white – 94.8%, and also very wealthy – a median household income of over $207,000 and a median value of owner-occupied housing units of $941,800. How much affordable housing is available in places like Winnetka? Previous efforts to introduce the idea have met resistance. Does having any Section 8 residents threaten property values or the community’s image? Suburban residents don’t have to actively oppose such plans to provide space for poorer residents; their zoning and comprehensive plans can make their thoughts pretty clear. Would their opinions change if they met a person like Thomas Miranda? Maybe, but no matter how much they might like him as an individual, too many such residents of a certain status would not be good.

End of the conversation about affordable housing in Winnetka

I highlighted earlier this year (original post in March, update in April) a public discussion taking place in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka over affordable housing. After a vote last night, Winnetka has decided to table this discussion:

The six trustees were evenly split on a resolution to take several Plan Commission recommendations off the table. Village President Jessica Tucker broke the tie by supporting the resolution to drop talks about the issue.

The Plan Commission began studying affordable housing in 2005, and in April offered its recommendations to diversify the village’s housing stock by encouraging rental apartments and coach houses, as well as sub-market rate condominium units in qualifying future developments.

On Tuesday, village trustees cited a Winnetka Caucus survey in which a majority of respondents opposed affordable housing by more than a 2-to-1 margin…

The three most controversial components of the plan were “inclusionary” zoning, a housing trust fund, and a community land trust. After being sent back to the advisory panel for more consideration, plan commissioners voted to withdraw their recommendation regarding a community land trust.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Wealthier suburbs, like Winnetka, often don’t desire affordable housing because of connotations the term has with poorer residents, lowered property values, and a diminished community image.

The Winnetka Caucus Survey is interesting in of itself. As the Causus notes, “One out of every four households in the village completed this survey.” This is not exactly a representative sample although this isn’t terribly different than the percentages of people who tend to turn out for local elections across suburbs. Here is how the survey gave background for the affordable housing questions:

Beginning in 1979, the Winnetka Plan Commission identified the need for modest-priced housing for seniors,
young families, and those who work in the community. For a variety of reasons, over the ensuing years
Winnetka lost many rental units and restrictions on renting coach houses further impacted the stock of modest priced housing. In 2004, the State of Illinois enacted the Affordable Housing Act, and under it Winnetka was required to file an affordable housing plan. However, in 2005, Winnetka adopted Home Rule and asserted its rights to have local control over the affordable housing issue. That same year, Winnetka filed an Affordable Housing Plan with the State declaring that Winnetka would assert its Home Rule authority and not be subject to the State’s standards for Affordable Housing. The Village Council instructed the Winnetka Plan Commission to conduct further studies and propose a customized affordable housing plan for Winnetka. The resulting proposal from the Plan Commission includes zoning, code changes and other options to foster the availability of modest priced housing. It expands its vision to establish a program to set aside some units as affordable housing units and creates tools that bridge the affordability gap for qualified households. This Affordable Housing program is limited to multi-family units within Winnetka’s commercial districts and includes preferential access to these units for long-time residents and those who work in the community. Because of the higher affordability standards, it would not qualify for state or federal affordable housing funds or fit under Section 8 housing. The new program would engage local government – either the Village Council or an appointed agency – in housing issues, as the new administrator would determine (according to the program’s guidelines) who may live in these affordable housing units and at what cost. Resources would be required to manage the program and properties on a permanent basis (i.e. forever) and, potentially, to purchase property. Further, the program would require developers of multi-family projects to dedicate a portion of their units to the Affordable Housing program in which the units would be sold or rented at below-market “affordable” rates.

On the whole, respondents were against the village getting involved in these housing issues with 85% of respondents saying “It is not appropriate for Village government to be involved in determining who can live here and what prices can be charged for housing in Winnetka” and similarly negative responses to specific pieces of the affordable housing proposal (pages 5-10 of the PDF). Interestingly, there was also strong support (over 60%) for Winnetka needs more affordable housing options for seniors” and “Winnetka needs more affordable housing options for those who work in the community.” Providing this kind of affordable housing is more of “workforce housing” for which some suburbs openly advocate. So if people want these housing options but don’t want the affordable housing proposal run by the village, how exactly might this get done?

Despite the low number of people who completed the survey, the Winnetka Caucus Council has a long history and likely is an influential force in the community.

A $32 million home with 27,000 square feet is not a McMansion

When I started studying the use of the term McMansion years ago, I didn’t expect to run into this problem: how big does a house have to be in order to be called a McMansion? Sometimes the question is on the lower end but lately, I have run into a number of articles suggesting that really large houses are McMansions. Here is another example:

Going, going, gone will be music to Sherwin and Deborah Jarol’s ears when their palatial estate is auctioned off on October 29. The couple have been unable to find a buyer for their lavish Chicago area mcmansion dubbed “Le Grand Reve,” which has been on and off the market with numerous price chops since the summer 2010…

This home isn’t messing around — the crib measures an incredible 27,000 square feet and includes this luxurious entryway and two story rotunda that looks like it belongs in a real palace.

As I’ve argued before about similar homes, this house is far beyond McMansion status. It is simply a mansion. This isn’t about the average suburban nouveau riche looking for a status symbol or a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood or having a garish home (though one wonders if it is possible to live in the style that the interior of the home is decorated in). This is the sort of home only available to the mega-rich.

Here is the real estate listing for the home. Any surprise that it is in Winnetka?

(Perhaps the gallery offers a way out: a picture later in the show says, “The mansion features six bedrooms, all as wonderfully opulent as this one.” Did two people write the captions? Can you have it both ways?)

Update on affordable housing debate in Winnetka

The Chicago Tribune reports on Tuesday’s meeting in Winnetka regarding a proposed affordable housing ordinance. Here is how the comments at the meeting were summarized:

Rick McQuet, a Winnetka resident, said at the meeting that the affordable housing plan is intended to help young families and recent college graduates.

“That young family was me about 15 years ago, a new degree in hand and aspirations of becoming a member of a truly great community,” he said.

Northfield resident June O’Donoghue received applause after she said she opposes the proposal because it interferes with the housing market.

“Housing is affordable to the people who can afford it. That is a simple thing,” O’Donoghue said. “I think you need a referendum for people to vote to see if they want to go through all this social engineering.”

In recent weeks, the plan’s opponents have said it amounts to “hand-outs” for people with lower income that could result in Section 8 housing, decreased property values and increased crime. Supporters have lashed out at the opposition as bigoted, arguing that the plan would allow teachers, clergy and other employees to live in the community in which they work.

Some thoughts about these comments (which may or may not represent everything that was said at the meeting):

1. The first comment I included above is interesting in that it refers to a common understanding of affordable housing in suburbs: it is not about helping the disadvantaged in society but rather “young families,” “recent college graduates,” and often elderly residents of the community. While this may be a good goal for a community (particularly if residents want their own family members in these categories to live in the community), this is a different understanding of “affordable housing.” Perhaps this is what has to be done in many suburbs order to counter the plan’s opponents who are quoted as saying this is really about helping lower-income people. But overall, there are needs for cheaper housing in society beyond people who might fit a profile of a community but simply don’t have the money.

The plan seems to play to this more suburban understanding of affordable housing:

The proposed plan would apply to new developments, in which 15 percent of owner-occupied units must be affordable to households earning at least $75,000 per year, while 15 percent of rental units would be affordable to those earning at least $45,000. Current residents and senior citizens would receive priority, the plan says.

According to the Census, the 2009 median household income was $49,777 so the part of the plan for people making at least $45,000 is still drawing from near the top 50% of American incomes.

2. “Social engineering” is always an interesting term to think about. In finishing my taxes for this year, I was reminded that our tax code is riddled with all sorts of “social engineering” in terms of promoting or incentivizing certain activities. We as Americans value homeownership so we have a home mortgage interest deduction (which some argue should be taken away). We give deductions for giving money to charities. Is all social policy “social engineering” or just policies that some people don’t like?