The plan is to add two stories to the Comcast building and build 51 identical rooms, all about 450 square feet, on three floors. Retail businesses, building staff facilities, and a public community room occupy the first floor.

The rooms would rent for about $700 dollars a month, have space for a bed, the tenants’ belongings, some appliances, a closet, shower and a small kitchen. The amenities are limited. There is no gym, pool, or gathering place or space.

When Interfaith Housing Development Corporation of Chicago (IHDC) announced they were going to build housing at the Comcast building in June, 2008, their representative said, “We’re looking at trying to replace the housing at the [West Cook] YMCA. That’s really how this all started.” Fifteen months later, Interfaith’s plan collapsed when the YMCA announced they were not moving and that their 120-bed housing for permanent, transient and homeless singles would remain open.

Trapped by its failure to anticipate that the YMCA might not move, Interfaith had a decision to make. Do they abandon the development, redesign it, or repackage it with a new customer profile? With pre-development money already invested, Oak Park Housing Authority (OPHA) on board, and several village officials receptive to the idea, Interfaith chose to change the profile.

The Interfaith decision, made without demand research, defied the results of a survey, conducted by the village and a HUD consulting team during the summer of 2009. The survey determined that the village’s affordable housing demand was for senior and handicapped apartments, and two- and three-bedroom homes or apartments. Only 20 percent of the community leaders and housing experts thought there was a need for “efficiency” housing. In November 2009, the Oak Park Five-Year Consolidated Plan and 2010 Annual Action Plan were published without a recommendation for efficiency or single housing.

Interfaith’s decision was about money. The 51-room plan was the only housing configuration that was profitable. The development had to be abandoned or go forward as singles only. (This is verified in the OPHA minutes of September 2009.)

The new Interfaith marketing plan was simple: No longer was it a replacement for the YMCA’s SRO. It was now billed as affordable apartments. Many residents saw the new plan as a solution to many Oak Park problems. Others saw it as a solution without a problem. Who is right can only be answered by the village board and HUD.

Oak Park commissions and the public reviewed the plan during the later part of 2010. The commissions blessed the development while the public was less willing to embrace it. The development proposal was then sent to the OP Plan Commission with board instructions that they were to restrict recommendations to changes in zoning. The commission approved the zoning variances with addenda (not yet published), added an Oak Park Residents Preference section, and sent the development to the board for a vote that is now scheduled for May 16.

The development goes to the board lacking a professional marketing or business plan, a residents’ criteria, a survey of Madison businesses, recent neighborhood demographic trends, input from other communities or OP business or independent community leaders, long term strategy (40 years — the life of the development), an incomplete environmental study, parking and traffic studies, minimal financing detail, a negative survey conducted by Neighbors for Madison Renewal, and no plan on how to get Oak Park Residence Preference approval from HUD.

It does not have to be this way.

Many communities do not use federal money to finance housing developments. They have determined that using HUD makes financing easier but at the loss of creative solutions, flexibility in planning, and reduced control of the development throughout its useful life. They want local ownership with less bureaucracy.

Oak Park is famous for its willingness to take risks to maintain its independence and unique character. Are we ready to outsource our village’s core values to the federal government without at least studying the possibility that there is a better and more secure way to address the challenges of affordable housing in our village?

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