On Monday evening Oak Park’s village board had a long, complex and earnest discussion about next steps in creating an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. For the 11 people, just one of them an incumbent, running for seats on the village board come April, this meeting might have been a lesson in what they are getting themselves into.

As the discussion ended, there were added points of consensus on what this ordinance ought to include. Large apartment and townhome construction projects included. Condos in a weak market, not included. Land along both the Green and Blue lines included, but areas closest to Austin Boulevard excluded. Still, on the most fundamental issues, what percentage of units — 5 percent, 10 percent — in a large project should be set aside as affordable, or alternatively, what price should be set for a developer to pay into an affordable housing fund — $50,000 per set aside unit, $100,000 per set aside unit?

This board, working strenuously to complete an ordinance before the April 2 election, wisely stepped back Monday and asked staff to gather more data on “fee in lieu” pricing by using a third-party real estate consultant. That will slow final choices.

This is an important issue. Oak Park needs an inclusionary housing ordinance to bring some structure to an issue that goes to the heart of our community values related to housing for a wide range of people of differing economic means. We need the clarity that will come from figuring out how new development, mostly high end, needs to contribute to those solutions.

Here are a few thoughts:

What’s right? There is no entirely right answer on the specifics of the equation. Is 5 percent the right number on set asides? Maybe 7 percent? Likely it ultimately depends on the strength of the market. Certainly it depends on the price of the land which, going forward, is always going to be an entirely private transaction as the village-owned parcels have been sold off. 

Is the fee in lieu number $50,000? Evanston just raised its number per unit. Two points. The right number will create some tension in the negotiations with a potential developer. If they willingly fork over $50,000, the number is too low. If the new ordinance creates actual blockades in locking in new projects, then the village may have overshot. In either case, the number can be adjusted. These are government regs that are being written. Not the Magna Carta.

So think but don’t overthink.

Finally, this discussion, both village-wide and at the board table, is moving Oak Park closer to understanding how we define affordable housing and what success in meeting the needs of real people looks like. Is it setting aside 20 units across three future projects at somewhat discounted rents? Is it piling up $2 million in a discretionary fund that makes possible worthy and broadly affordable projects such as New Moms on Chicago Avenue and Community Builders on Oak Park Avenue? Is it having those funds flow into vital innovators such as Housing Forward and the Oak Park Housing Authority to fund transitional housing for people trying to stave off homelessness or meeting a special need?

There isn’t a single right answer. There isn’t an answer that will be right for today and remain unchanged for a decade.

There is an underlying truth. This discussion reinforces that it is in Oak Park’s character to stretch, to struggle to meet the needs of more people, to foster diversity in all its definitions. And for all the pain in the details of this discussion, it is an affirming effort. 

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