Like everything else, the state of housing in Oak Park and River Forest experienced a lot of changes during the pandemic. A few local professionals weigh in on what they are seeing now and what they think the future may hold.
Michael Nowicki, of Ideal Location-Oak Park Realty, says that the pandemic saw a remarkable increase in demand for square footage- both inside and outside of homes. In 2019 and earlier, large homes tended to take longer to sell. Not so anymore. Even though the typical family size has decreased over the past few decades, he says, “Now, maybe both parents work from home, or the kids are now being home-schooled, and the need for a four or more-bedroom home is back.”
On the rental end, representatives of Oak Park Apartments advise that all costs associated with providing housing have skyrocketed in the past two years, increasing at a dramatically faster pace than at any time in the previous 35 years. In addition, the practical side of renting apartments changed drastically. Virtual apartment tours and paperless leasing became essential practices.
As Executive Director of Housing Forward, Lynda Schueler says the economic hardships created by Covid left thousands of renters unable to pay their rent. She states, “The eviction moratorium and the federal recovery funds for emergency rental assistance helped stave off a tidal wave of newly-homeless individuals and families.”
Housing Forward facilitated the processing of over $800,000 in rental payments to landlords in the last two years, an increase of nearly 400% over previous years.
She states, “For the first time in our agency’s history, the number of people we served who were at-risk of homelessness eclipsed the number of people who were literally homeless during COVID.”
Schueler says the focus of the agency had to shift when they were forced to close their long-time PADS Emergency Shelter due to the congregate nature of the program. Housing Forward pivoted to create a hotel-based facility. Schueler calls this model, “the most dignified response to addressing homelessness.”
Going forward, Nowicki says, “The biggest challenge is always affordability. Oak Park needs to be affordable for people of all backgrounds and all stages of life- from the single parent working a modest job, to the newly-married couple looking to establish roots, to the older generation looking to move out of their house and into something smaller and more easily-manageable.”
Nowicki says the key to keeping Oak Park a vibrant and generational town, is to keep the housing “cycle of life” moving.
Oak Park Apartments sees a challenge with being able to maintain a supply of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH.) They say that NOAH is under attack from increased government regulation and skyrocketing property taxes. These contribute to the increased cost and complexity of providing housing, resulting in less-affordable housing village-wide.
Schueler credits significant COVID-relief funding from the federal government with a needed influx of funds over the past two years, and says, “Sustainability of our new 24/7 Interim Housing program model once these federal recovery funds are exhausted is our biggest challenge.”
She says that when compared to the PADS program, which used donated space, the challenge of raising operating costs for a building 365 days a year, with 65 rooms that require cleaning and maintenance is something Housing Forward’s board of directors and leadership team will be addressing in an upcoming strategic plan.
When it comes to hopes for the future, Nowicki says he’s hoping to see Oak Park once again establish itself as the go-to suburb that people adore and where they want to live. He states, “I want there to be more focus on how socially-advanced we are. How historically rich and talented we are. Let’s focus on what we, as a village, have done, and what we continue to strive for. Let’s be hometown proud. Afterall, it is a privilege to live here, and I hope that people see our beliefs in action and want to move here to become a part of it.”
With an eye towards affordability, Oak Park Apartments hopes that the future will bring a balanced approach to housing regulations and property taxes to allow housing providers to be able to continue to provide affordable housing options locally.
Schueler also has hopes that state and local governments will see that the investment of resources in emergency rental assistance truly can prevent future homelessness. Noting that Housing Forward stabilized 569 individuals in housing in 2021, up from 447 households in 2020, she sums up, “This shift in addressing both the ‘front and back doors’ to homelessness is the trend we hope to continue to see in the future.”