The unoccupied six-story, 64-unit apartment building, 855 Lake St., just east of Unity Temple, is being restored with a promise of affordable housing units. Chicago-based Icon Clark LLC purchased the building in May 2018 for $3.97 million and has steadily been renovating its interior and exterior.

At a Feb. 2 meeting, the Oak Park village board accepted a recommendation from the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) to subsidize construction of a new full cab elevator by providing a grant of $260,000 to Icon Clark.

 Upon inspection of the building, the fire department recommended the addition of an enclosed staircase and an external elevator which would improve accessibility for both tenants and emergency responders. The costs of such additions were not factored into the purchase price as they are not required by village code, according to OPEDC.

While Icon Clark has agreed to pay for the construction of a stairwell, the cost of adding an elevator is not financially viable, according to OPEDC.

OPEDC made this recommendation based on the intended outcome of increased safety, as well as “the preservation of affordable and accessible housing in the downtown area,” as stated in its letter of recommendation to the village board.

The letter of recommendation said Icon “will commit to keeping 20 percent of the units affordable to renters at or below 50 percent area median income (AMI) for at least 15 years as part of its financing agreement with Community Investment Corporation and The Preservation Compact’s Opportunity Investment Fund.” 

Beyond that, OPEDC’s analysis suggests that over 85 percent of the units will be “naturally more affordable.” The building is primarily studio apartments which are more affordable than apartments with one or more bedrooms.

David Pope, former village president and current executive director of the Oak Park Residence Corporation and the Oak Park Housing Authority, commended the developer for having 20 percent affordable housing and 80 percent market rate apartments. 

Pope said that ratio reflects the underlying economic model of the non-profit Oak Park Residence Corporation.

“There’s a rationale that I want to make sure is clear and understood,” Pope said. “There are affordable housing developments that are 100 percent affordable that make sense and they tend to be ones that are geared toward specific populations where you want to tie services to those developments so you can provide wraparound services.”

Pope cited senior living communities, as well as the recent New Moms housing support project located on Chicago Avenue, as examples of logical places to have a concentration of affordable units.

 “But on balance, the real goal of affordable housing is to work to be able to break up the cycles of poverty that occur, the intergenerational continuation of poverty,” he said. “The data demonstrates that that is most likely to happen in a mixed income scenario, within this case 20 percent of units being affordable and 80 percent being market rate, and for those developments to be located in opportunity areas.”

Lake Street is a thriving downtown area. The opportunity to upgrade the vacant building, which has a sordid past, is twofold: It would restore the eyesore property as well as offer affordable housing in an economically thriving location.

“In this context, if it’s executed well, I think it will be a real asset to the village and I think it’s worthy of support,” said Pope.

“I don’t believe we should use affordable housing funds that aren’t necessary to create affordable housing and I think this project already does create affordable housing,” said Trustee Simone Boutet. “This to me is no different than a developer, doesn’t make the proforma, coming to the village and just asking for money.”

“There is a benefit that the village is obtaining by paying the purchase price for the elevator, in addition to making the units accessible to low-income people,” Development Customer Services Director Tammie Grossman said. 

Grossman said that the project hadn’t come to the village for any variances or type of review. “I also think it’s the right thing to do because it makes this building accessible,” she said. 

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla was concerned about whether the units set aside as affordable housing would continue to be affordable after the promised 15 years ended.

“There’s no guarantee that it can remain affordable without any restrictions, given that we have Albion and all of those large developments on Lake Street,” she said. “What happens after the 15 years is up?”

Walker-Peddakotla called out the village because it has “failed to define what affordable housing” means. 

“When we talk about using the Affordable Housing Fund, are we using it specifically to fund affordable units or are we using it for extraneous purposes like this?” she asked. She also was concerned about spending $260,000 of the Affordable Housing Fund when the entirety of the fund is currently at $382,000.

Boutet gave her support for the project on the condition that the language in the grant agreement was amended from “20 percent of the units affordable to renters at or below 50 percent area median income” to “20 percent of the units affordable are to and rented by households earning at or below 50 percent area median income.”

Trustee Dan Moroney offered his definite support for the project and thanked the developer for putting money into the project. “I’m fully in favor of this and I think it’s a great use of the funds,” he said.

Trustee Jim Taglia agreed with Moroney, while Trustee Deno Andrews said there were good arguments on both sides. 

Andrews wasn’t “thrilled” with the 15-year limit. 

“I’d like to see that limit be in perpetuity and if that limit isn’t in perpetuity, I’d like to see that money returned to the village,” he said. 

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and Trustees Susan Buchanan, Moroney, Boutet and Taglia all voted in favor of passing the agreement to provide Icon Clark with a $260,000 grant to construct the elevator. Trustees Andrews and Walker-Peddakotla gave dissenting votes. 

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