In Northwest Suburbs, Zoning Shuts Door on Affordable Housing

Deborah Smith moved to Hoffman Estates 11 years ago. The northwest suburb has grown increasingly diverse over the last 10 years, but about a third of its minority residents live in a single census tract. (Photo by Richard Stromberg)

Bill Brough had dreams of a country retreat near wildlife, wooded areas and small lakes far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. In 1955, he purchased 45 acres in northwest suburban Cook County for $500 per acre.

Four years later, he moved into the home he built himself as others started buying land and moving in all around him. And soon, neighboring landowners started talking about creating a village where quarter-acre lots would be the norm.

“People moved into this area because they like open space,” Brough recalled recently while sitting at a table in the barn he built to house his woodcarving hobby.

But sensing a battle, Brough and six others mobilized. Over a weekend, they drew up plans for the village of South Barrington, where lots were required to be at least an acre–”a law that still exists.

Since then South Barrington has fought hard to preserve the tradition of large homes on expansive pieces of land that average two acres apiece.

Though Chicago’s effort to rewrite its 45-year-old code has drawn more attention, housing experts say zoning is a battleground in the fight for affordable housing in regions like the northwest suburbs that have recently experienced significant job growth.

Since high density is a key component of affordable housing developments, many suburban villages are reluctant to be part of the solution. The result is a housing crisis that shuts low-income and minority residents out of the areas in which they could potentially find work, according to housing and economic development experts.

Zoning determines what developers can build, how much real estate is worth, and how much a home costs to build. But The Chicago Reporter found that zoning can also determine who your neighbors will be.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Practicum at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with the Reporter and WBEZ 91.5 Chicago Public Radio, 93 of 99 municipalities surveyed in Cook, west suburban DuPage, north suburban Lake, northwest suburban McHenry and south suburban Will counties have a written zoning plan. But only one third of those plans listed “expand[ing] affordable housing opportunities within municipality” as an objective.

Census records show that the wealthier communities surveyed were more likely not to have “affordable housing” goals. About 24 percent of communities with median household incomes above $70,000 a year included the goal in their zoning plans, compared with 37 percent of communities with lower incomes.

“It’s not surprising,” said Aurie Pennick, president and CEO of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a Chicago-based civil rights and housing advocacy organization. “It is difficult in an environment –¦ where affordable housing has become a pseudonym for public housing.”

In the next five years at least 6,500 public housing families will be permanently or temporarily displaced as the Chicago Housing Authority tears down most of its high-rise and mid-rise buildings.

“There is a fear that somehow thousands of public housing families are going to be rushing into these communities,” Pennick said.

This type of “exclusionary zoning,” Pennick said, came out of a longstanding history of affluent and white residents moving into outlying suburbs as poorer populations of color moved into cities.

“Historically, white flight has been supported systemically by governmental policies,” said Pennick, an African American who lives in far north suburban Grayslake. “And that white flight took with it the notion that, in our fleeing, we also want to create barriers to stop those we are fleeing from following us.”

Meanwhile, housing in high job growth areas is beyond the reach of many working and low-income families, according to the Metropolitan Mayors’ Caucus, a forum of nine suburban government councils and the City of Chicago that addresses issues affecting the six-county region. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley created the group in 1997.

And zoning requirements such as South Barrington’s, and the hefty price tag attached to them–”an average of $343,543 per lot since January 2001, according to Bill LaMack, president of ERA Countrywood Realty–”have left no room for more affordable housing.

As a result, South Barrington is not keeping pace with surrounding communities that have experienced tremendous minority growth in the last decade. Census records show the village has 3,760 residents, and its minority population rose from 10 to 17 percent–”14 percent Asian, 2 percent Latino and 1 percent black–”between 1990 and 2000.

During the same time, South Barrington’s neighbor to the south and east, Hoffman Estates, saw its minority population grow from 16 to 30 percent. This trend, studies show, is at least partly the result of that village’s “inclusionary” zoning code, which allows for the development of affordable and low-income housing.

But many South Barrington residents feel that, if affordable housing means high density, they never want it–”and they’re not sure they need it. “Is there really a shortage of affordable housing? I would question that,” said Bob Growney, a 59-year-old retired president and chief operating officer for Motorola who has lived in the South Barrington Lakes subdivision since 1979.

“We’re not everything within ourselves. We’re part of Hoffman Estates. We’re part of Schaumburg. We’re part of Barrington. We’re part of all these other communities and taking it as a whole then we are providing –¦ diversity,” said South Barrington Village President Frank Munao.

Urban Encroachment

Hoffman Estates straddles the Northwest Tollway 31 miles northwest of Chicago. It was founded in 1959 as a 3-square-mile chunk of land just south of the tollway and north of the area that is now Schaumburg.

“What happened after the second World War was that all those people came back from the war and they couldn’t afford the housing in Chicago,” said Hoffman Estates Village Clerk and former Mayor Virginia Hayter, a 40-year resident. “Land was cheap out here, and lots were a quarter of an acre.”

Later, the village annexed 3,300 acres to the west and zoned it for residential housing. Annexation continued at a regular pace into the late 1980s. The village now has 49,495 residents, according to the census.

As Hoffman Estates grew, bordering the southern and eastern edges of South Barrington, zoning differences became a source of friction between the two villages. South Barrington views Hoffman Estates as an example of urban encroachment.

While South Barrington grew modestly over the past decade from families moving into expensive homes surrounded by streams and ponds, Hoffman Estates saw racially and economically diverse residential growth and became a commercial hub, with big companies such as SBC Ameritech and Sears, Roebuck and Co.

In the 1960s, as a way to attract tax dollars, Hoffman Estates zoned newly annexed property for multi-family housing. This helped provide the region with 10,000 new rental units, according to Hayter.

And, in the 1970s, the village set aside rental units for low- and moderate-income families relocating from the city, many as a result of Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, a 1966 lawsuit by public housing residents that sought to reverse decades of housing segregation.

But more than half of the village’s apartments turned condo in the 1980s.

The apartments, owned by a real estate company, had fallen into disrepair that violated housing codes. Village officials demanded that the properties be rehabilitated, Hayter said.

Eventually, mortgage lenders came in and rehabbed the apartments, she said. And they went condo to recoup their investment. “That was a market issue,” explained Hayter.

Hoffman Estates still has townhomes, apartment complexes, bi-level homes and larger single-family dwellings. There are also 201 families renting apartments with Section 8 vouchers, a federal rent-subsidy program.

As the village’s housing stock has grown more diverse, so has its population. Census records show that the percentage of Latinos doubled over the past decade, growing from 5 to 11 percent. The Asian population had similar growth, from 8 to 15 percent. Hoffman Estates’ black population increased from 3 to 4 percent.

But, while Hoffman Estates is more racially diverse, many of the village’s blacks and Latinos live in a single census tract that is the only area in the northwest suburbs with housing defined as “affordable”–”purchase prices less than $128,000–”according to a study by Chicago Metropolis 2020, a non-profit regional planning group based in Chicago.

This area is bordered by Bartlett and Barrington roads south of the Northwest Tollway, and contains mostly apartment buildings and townhouses. With 6,732 residents, the area is about 14 percent of Hoffman Estates’ total population, but it is home to one-third of the village’s blacks and 17 percent of its Latinos.

However, South Barrington residents said low-density zoning has nothing to do with race. “There’s nothing wrong with houses being 10 feet apart, but we don’t want that here,” said Joe Helsing, a 64-year-old retired Air Force Colonel and village trustee who has lived in South Barrington for 20 years. “For someone to say that makes us prejudiced, well, that’s a blatant, outrageous lie.”

“Everyone is welcome here,” said Helsing, who noted the village’s sizeable Asian population. “And we even have some of the most prominent [black] sports figures in the Chicagoland area here, including [the family of the late] Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.”

Todd Swim, a 46-year-old consulting actuary who serves as a trustee on South Barrington’s board, agrees that the village is diverse. Swim, who moved to the village for its long-standing zoning policy, feels affordable housing is not its responsibility.

“Especially when there is a lot of that type of housing in surrounding communities,” said Swim. “What right do people think they have to change our community?”

Turf Battles

There’s not much the residents of South Barrington won’t do to preserve the character of their community. In the last 18 months, they have ousted most of the members of their village board and voted to raise taxes–”all to prevent construction of a high-density development near the village.

In January 2001, the former South Barrington board of trustees voted to annex approximately 610 acres of unincorporated land east of the village, between Illinois Highway 59 and Bartlett and Higgins roads, to make room for a new residential development.

The project, called The Woods of South Barrington, would add nearly 500 homes to a community that currently has a little more than 1,000. And only 38 of those homes would meet current zoning requirements of one acre per house, according to court documents. The smallest homes in the development were expected to sell for at least $350,000 each.

Various city and suburban newspapers reported that former village trustees approved the development because they feared that Hoffman Estates could annex the property, leaving South Barrington with no control over it. Under Hoffman Estates’ zoning code, developers could have built anything from single-family homes on one-acre lots to multi-family apartment buildings.

The move angered many South Barrington residents, who took action. In April 2001, residents voted out the former village president and three of the board’s six trustees who had approved the project. In their place, residents backed candidates who opposed The Woods project. “People demonstrate by voting,” said long-time resident Growney.

In August, the new village board overturned the decision to annex the property, but that did not end the dispute.

In September, the project’s developer and its financial backers sued the village for breach of contract and asked for almost $54 million in damages. Village residents subsequently approved a property tax hike to pay for the village’s legal expenses.

Former village president Michael Neben declined comment for this story. Former trustees did not return phone calls.

Many of South Barrington’s current trustees told the Reporter that the possibility of The Woods seeking annexation by Hoffman Estates was absurd.

“Having the South Barrington name is more important to a developer than having a high-density project,” said Helsing, even though a high-density development could turn a much quicker profit.

David Reifman, an attorney for the Piper Rudnick law firm in Chicago who represents The Woods’ developer, said that, while South Barrington was the “best option” for the development, Hoffman Estates has also always been considered.

Hoffman Estates Village Manager Jim Norris said the developer “came and talked to us about bringing [the development] to Hoffman Estates.”

Even if Hoffman Estates acquires the land, developing affordable housing there remains unlikely, because vacant land is expensive and zoned for commercial development, village officials said.

“We have very few people coming in and looking to build apartments, to be candid about it,” said Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod. “And most of them who do are talking about luxury [homes]. With the land cost here, anybody who is building something is looking that way.”

Many affordable housing developments, such as this one in Hoffman Estates, are characterized by high density. (Photo by Richard Stromberg)

The Need

In the last decade, residential developments have become more of an issue in the northwest suburbs since jobs have moved there in large numbers and affordable housing hasn’t kept pace. Meanwhile, the debate continues over who must take responsibility for housing these minimum- to low-wage earners.

According to a recent study by Metropolis 2020, northwest Cook County and DuPage County accounted for nearly half of the six-county region’s job growth between 1991 and 2000.

The study also showed that only two census tracts in the “high job growth region” have housing defined as “affordable.” One of them lies in the western suburbs and crosses the border between Villa Park, Oakbrook Terrace and unincorporated DuPage County. The other is the Hoffman Estates area south of the tollway.

Barrington Lakes, a 790-unit apartment complex in this part of Hoffman Estates, sits around a small lake and includes amenities like balconies, swimming pools, tennis courts and a clubhouse.

Deborah Smith, 47, an African American who lives in the complex, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and moved to Hoffman Estates 11 years ago.

Smith, now a self-employed diversity consultant who also teaches aqua-kickboxing at the complex’s clubhouse, said she pays $1,045 a month for her two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. “I think that’s the average for the space I have and the amenities offered,” she said. But, she added, the “rents are too high” for low-income families.

“The rents are high in the entire area,” said McLeod, the Hoffman Estates mayor. But “we have some of the most affordable housing in the northwest suburbs,” he added, although he admits that depends on the definition of “affordable.”

McLeod said condos are, in many ways, more affordable than rentals. “Where people can buy the condo, you have the property taxes –¦ but their mortgage is frozen. You’re much better off buying the place.

“We have affordable housing,” he added. “Why do we have to do more? We’ve done what we can do. South Barrington has done this exclusive zoning. Why don’t they have a program to do affordable housing?”

But Helsing feels that affordable housing is not South Barrington’s problem because it’s not contributing to the region’s commercial development. South Barrington lacks a downtown area or even a commercial center. It has about 10 businesses, including the Allstate Insurance headquarters, an upscale restaurant, a dentist’s office and a 30-screen movie theatre–”all of which are located on the perimeter of the village.

“We don’t have any Burger Kings [in South Barrington]. We don’t have any gas stations. It would be the responsible thing to do for areas that have these kinds of things to provide housing for their workers,” Helsing said.

Still, despite South Barrington’s efforts to prevent it, commercial development continues all around.

In fact, the village recently lost a legal battle with Hoffman Estates over the construction of a 193,870-square foot Meijer discount department store. The new mega-center will be located in Hoffman Estates, where the two towns meet on Barrington Road just north of the Northwest Tollway.

South Barrington’s suit claimed the store, which will be open 24 hours and average 5,500 customers daily, “will be inconsistent with the luxury residential character of –¦ South Barrington and will impair and endanger the health, safety and welfare of the residents.”

Even though South Barrington shuns commercial growth, trustee Swim said residential developers willing to build under the village’s restrictive zoning are always knocking on its door.

Construction continues at South Barrington’s four newest subdivisions, which could eventually add approximately 200 new residents, according to Ray Wolfel, the village’s building and zoning officer.

To sustain that growth, the village will require additional middle class workers, such as teachers, firefighters and police officers, but most agree South Barrington will not be their home.

“If you’re working here and earning the money that police officers are making, you can’t live in this village,” said South Barrington Police Chief Chuck Gruber.

But he added: “I don’t really necessarily think small niche markets need to be necessarily concerned with affordable housing when affordable housing is provided for in the communities of Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Elgin, Hoffman Estates and all the rest of the communities around here.”

Some experts disagree.

“They’re good enough to teach my children, protect me from burglars or fire –¦ but [they are] not good enough to live down the street from me. Why shouldn’t they?” asked King Harris, senior executive at Metropolis 2020.

Harris is the former president and chief executive officer of Pittway Corp., a Chicago firm that made and distributed alarm systems. He started a program to help workers buy homes near the company’s factory in west suburban St. Charles.

Employees were eligible for $5,000 loans to assist with their down payments. Nearly two dozen took advantage of the loans, which were forgiven if the workers stayed with the company five years.

Uphill Battles

Mark Spreyer, who runs a nature center and humorously referred to himself as “probably the poorest guy” in South Barrington, said politics will prevent local leaders from taking the lead in creating affordable housing.

“I don’t think any official here would get re-elected if they changed the zoning requirement,” he said.

“It’s going to be hard, because we’re fighting uphill against many decades of strategy and a policy that exclusion is the norm, rather than inclusion,” said Pennick of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. “We need to make it possible for people to live in areas where there is job growth.”

Although the federal and state governments are offering incentives for developing affordable housing, such as tax breaks for investors, there is no “systematic political will” to do this at the local level, said Reifman.

Harris said there are several ways state government could apply pressure on communities to provide affordable housing. The state could withhold money for infrastructure, education and other services from communities that don’t provide it.

“If your attitude is that –˜I don’t want to be a part of this,’ then you will not get the same amount of state funding –¦ that you’d been getting up ’til now. You’ll just have to raise that money yourself, and communities that are cooperative will get it,” Harris said.

But state legislators have made attempts to address the need for affordable housing.

Under a federal tax incentive plan passed in 1986, each state is allocated the equivalent of $1.75 per resident to distribute in tax credits to investors who help fund affordable housing developments. Under the program, investors are given a 10-year tax credit in exchange for investment in an affordable housing development. Illinois’ portion of this program is approximately $21 million each year.

Last year, the state passed its own tax incentive plan under Senate Bill 1135, introduced by Republican Sen. William E. Peterson of Buffalo Grove. His 26th district covers much of western Lake County and lies just outside South Barrington.

Under the plan, the state will provide a 50 percent tax credit match of money donated for an affordable housing endeavor by the private sector. The amount was set at $13 million for the first year, but will increase 5 percent each year. In addition, $2 million was set aside for companies that help their employees find housing.

“We fashioned the bill with the idea of getting our foot in the door. We would have liked to have had a bigger commitment from the state,” Peterson said.

But he said it’s too early to tell how successful the program will be. “I think it’s going to take another year to see how it comes out. But yes, there have been people who are interested.”

However, the bill does not address zoning issues, and relies on the assumption that employees can find available homes in their price range.

Munao, South Barrington’s village president, said that village is part of a larger northwest suburban area that does provide affordable housing. “I don’t think you can take a community as small as the boundaries are for a village like South Barrington and say that we have to have everything in the world possible within those boundaries,” he said.

But Harris said he would tell Munao: “While it’s true your neighbor has got a lot of affordable housing, it’s also true they’ve got lots of problems because of that.”

“If we concentrate lower income people in certain neighborhoods, we’re going to create social problems. Haven’t we learned that lesson in the city of Chicago long ago?” Harris asked.

Officials in Hoffman Estates said the village cannot afford, financially or politically, to do more residential zoning, especially for affordable housing.

“We can bring in affordable housing, and then tell everybody else we’re gonna raise their taxes to pay for services for that housing,” said Richard Unwin, community development director for Hoffman Estates. “And they’ll say, –˜Fine. In the next election, you’re outta here.’ “

Much of Hoffman Estates’ remaining vacant land is zoned commercial, which will bring in developments that pay higher taxes than residential buildings, said McLeod, the village’s mayor. “We have to make sure the bills get paid.”

But South Barrington residents said preserving their environment is their main objective. “We are providing a style of living where we don’t have the cosmospolitan attitude of the larger communities,” said Munao.

Harris argues that there have been successful integrated communities that were able to preserve their natural surroundings, maintain high home values, and still provide affordable housing for the lowest income levels.

He cited Montgomery County, Md., which is the nation’s fourth-wealthiest county, but has “inclusionary” zoning.

According to the county’s Web site, 31 percent of its homes are multi-family structures, and apartment rents range from $664 for an efficiency to just more than $1,000 for a three bedroom. The county is 73 percent white, 13.4 percent black, 10.9 percent Asian and 8.6 percent Latino. The median single-family home value was $197,000 in 1997.

“It is quite possible to build wonderful new subdivisions with very expensive homes, which are very near attractively priced mixed-income housing, townhome-style dwellings with three units as opposed to one,” Harris said.

“Unless someone pointed out to you –¦ that that’s where [the affordable houses] were, you might not know,” he said, adding that such changes could take place in the Chicago area.

Highland Park, the North Shore suburb known for its old-money charm, is currently rewriting its zoning code to make it more inclusive. A study by the Campaign for Sensible Growth, a regional coalition of civic and business leaders, found that Highland Park could benefit from providing affordable housing. “Other communities have found that well-designed and carefully placed higher-density housing often adds value to surrounding properties,” the study said.

While many pass the buck, others are taking action.

In the “2002 Housing Action Agenda,” the Metropolitan Mayors’ Caucus and the Metropolitan Planning Council listed nine steps for creating affordable housing. They included providing mixed uses–”both commercial and residential–”within neighborhoods, encouraging an array of quality housing and supporting growth that not only provides economic opportunities but also preserves the environment.

Housing advocates view the agenda as an historic step because, for the first time, local leaders are addressing the affordable housing crisis.

Metropolis 2020’s recent report also identified a list of goals for addressing regional issues. The goal of housing choice and affordability was simply stated: “All people will have access to quality affordable housing that is accessible to jobs across the region.”

Accomplishing that, according to the group, means bringing civic and business leaders together. Peterson agrees: “I think it’s got to be a collaboration between the private sector, those employers who are looking to put something together and the local governments.”

But, he added, “the local governments would have sole authority on the zoning and the planning of” affordable housing.

Advocates are skeptical. They say getting the local communities to jump on the bandwagon will be difficult.

“It all comes down to politics, to community will,” Reifman said. “If people want to get affordable housing in their community, they will.”

Communities seem more willing to address housing issues concerning seniors, he added. “They’re less interested to do it for affordability and class issues.”

The mayors’ caucus published a list of “Housing Endorsement Criteria” that concludes that stability and productivity for both employees and their companies could be compromised without local housing for wage earners at all levels.

Hayter, the Hoffman Estates village clerk, is also a former board member of the Metropolitan Leadership Council for Open Communities. She applauds the efforts made by the nonprofit world. But she is very critical of their approach.

“There is a very strong ethic from local leaders: –˜Don’t tell us what to do. Show us why it might be necessary and then let us do it,’ ” she said.

The focus, she said, must be on winning over residents. “If you want to get something done, you start in the living rooms and the barbecues with the discussions. –¦ Very seldom do you get politicians to plant the seed on any issue.”

Hayter also stressed the need for a collaborative effort among builders and government officials.

“Unless you can get free land, and you can get architects who can build you decent housing at decent prices, and get contractors who know how to –¦ do it the way it’s supposed to be done, and everybody takes not what the market will bear, but a fair-share profit, and the county says it will tax this at a different rate because of the needs of society, nothing’s going to happen.”

She added: “You’ve got everybody that needs to be involved in this and I don’t see anybody wanting to do it.”

Pennick said business leaders hold that key.

They can help by “working with municipalities to loosen up their zoning,” she said. “And municipalities will listen to the business communities, because that’s where their tax base is. So that’s the good news.”

Tarshel Beards, Rupa Shenoy, Abbie Van Sickle, Steve Sierra and Tamirra C. Stewart helped research this article.

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