Affordable housing talk bubbles up at Oak Park meeting

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By DREW CARTER

As one of its first items of business at its Sept. 6 regular meeting, Oak Park village trustees passed a resolution in memory of Bob James, the Realtor described as "a pivotal force dealing with the issues of integration in the 1960s and 1970s working for the passage of the fair housing ordinance which became law in Oak Park in 1968."

Shortly thereafter, in discussing approval of a townhouse project at 6606 W. Roosevelt Road (see story on Business, page 21), an unexpected conversation about affordable housing began.

Trustee Martha Brock asked John Schiess, the project's architect, if he talks about the housing needs in Oak Park with the developers he works with.

"We have that conversation quite a bit," Schiess said. "We want to offer the type of housing people want to buy."

But Trustee Geoff Baker asked if Schiess, as a major local developer, would not push for affordable housing, who would? Baker said that in his 7 years in the village, "not a single unit" of affordable housing was developed.

"What's the point of Bob James' life for 77 years?" Baker asked.

Schiess responded that the issue was probably too much for a single developer to shoulder, that he built 24 homes in Chicago as part of an affordable housing venture, and that he knows about the partnerships needed for such projects.

"That wasn't one developer going in and saying, 'I want to be the guy,'" Schiess said.

Plan Commission Chair Colette Lueck, responding to a question about stabilizing the "type" of community Oak Park offers, put the responsibility on the village board.

She said the board needs to define affordable housing, and define "compensating benefits" in the zoning ordinance. The Plan Commission is bound by the ordinance, and cannot hold developers accountable to standards that don't exist, she said.

As for affordable housing, she cited a 2003 study that found Oak Park lacking most in entry-level, middle-income housing.

Village President David Pope said a discussion on affordable housing is on the board's calendar, and Trustee Robert Milstein agreed that the board is responsible for the issue.

"We have to start acting and make definitions," Milstein said.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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