Data from the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey and information available on the condo prices at District House and the rents at the Emerson, Vantage, and Albion high-rises. | DATA PROVIDED

Part I

What’s a village to do when it becomes so attractive that the seniors who made it great can’t afford to live there anymore, when its teachers, nurses, small business owners, first responders, librarians, village staff, recent college graduates, physical therapists, and even newspaper publisher can no longer afford to live there?

That’s Oak Park’s growing dilemma. It has become so desirable as one of the few well-located, stable, racially-diverse communities in the Chicago area that its racial and economic diversity are slowly slipping away as the cost of housing here has soared beyond the means of most Oak Parkers.

Nearly half of Oak Park tenants are considered “cost-burdened,” which means they spend 30 percent or more of their gross household income on housing. A quarter of Oak Park renters are considered “severely cost-burdened,” spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Nearly 30 percent of Oak Park’s homeowners with a mortgage are cost-burdened.

Spending that much on housing is just plain bad for them and the local economy. After covering their housing costs — an essential expense — many of our neighbors don’t have the income left to make discretionary purchases at local businesses. After paying so much of their income on housing, they don’t have money to save to buy a home, cover their children’s college tuition, or save for retirement.

To see if Oak Parkers can afford the new apartments and condominiums being built in here, I compiled data from the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey and information available on the condo prices at District House and the rents at the Emerson, Vantage, and Albion high-rises.

Lo and behold, most Oak Parkers cannot afford to rent or buy in these new buildings. According to the affordability formulae the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the nation’s city planners use, a household can afford to spend up to 30 percent of its gross monthly income on rent and can buy a home that costs up to three times a household’s annual income.

One of the measures of housing affordability in the many analyses of impediments to fair housing choice that my planning firm has conducted for jurisdictions across the nation is whether the median household income of a city is high enough to rent or purchase a home. The median is the midway point: half of a city’s households have incomes above the city’s median and half below it.

Oak Park’s median household income is $82,826 and the median for nonfamily households (single people, roommates) is $45,310. The least expensive condominiums at District House sold for $600,000, which required an annual household income of at least $200,000, well above the $82,826 Oak Park median. Even a median-income married couple with a $141,197 household income — the highest income group in Oak Park — could not afford to buy the least expensive condo at District House.

Thanks to the census providing more fine-tuned data by income range, we can more precisely estimate the proportions of Oak Park households that can’t afford new construction. Just 16 percent of Oak Park households enjoy incomes over $200,000, leaving 84 percent of Oak Park households unable to afford even the least expensive District House condominiums.

As the three tables accompanying this article show, most of the lowest-priced new rentals are out of reach for most Oak Park households. At the Albion high-rise under construction, you’ll need a household income of at least $55,400 to afford a studio apartment; $66,515 for a convertible unit; $74,880 for a one-bedroom; $105,840 for a two-bedroom; and $145,600 for a three-bedroom.

Singles and roommates face the greatest hurdles even with the studio apartments targeted to them. Fifty-eight to 63 percent of them cannot afford the least expensive studio apartment; 70 percent can’t afford a convertible unit.

As the tables show, more than a third of Oak Parkers can’t afford a studio, convertible, or one-bedroom in any of these new buildings. Fifty-four to 60 percent cannot afford a two-bedroom and 73 percent cannot afford a three-bedroom — and those are for the lowest-rent units.

That can only lead to the whitening of Oak Park since the median household income for African-American Oak Park households is just $54,289, more than $41,000 less than white households. The only new residential units that a median-income black household can afford are the lowest-rent studio apartments — not exactly suitable for a family with children.

I imagine that if you don’t value the village’s racial and economic diversity, there’s nothing wrong with this picture. But if you do value Oak Park’s diversity — which is at the core of what Oak Park is and stands for, at least according to adopted village plans and policies — then the village board needs to act proactively to bring to Oak Park housing that current residents with modest and even not-so-modest incomes can afford. 

Next week: The key tool available to do just that.

Daniel Lauber, AICP, a River Forest resident, was principal author of Oak Park’s Comprehensive Plan 1979. A planning consultant and fair housing attorney, he has testified to both houses of Congress on affordable housing. He is a past president of the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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