With No Oversight, Illinois Cities Flout State Law That Encourages Affordable Housing

empty boardroom
An empty boardroom is pictured. The Illinois Housing Appeals Board was formed in 2009 to provide checks and balances for the creation of affordable housing, but the body has never heard a case. Critics say that the board's inactivity has contributed to more than 30 municipalities flouting a state law that encourages the development of affordable housing. Jo_Johnston/Pixabay
empty boardroom
An empty boardroom is pictured. The Illinois Housing Appeals Board was formed in 2009 to provide checks and balances for the creation of affordable housing, but the body has never heard a case. Critics say that the board's inactivity has contributed to more than 30 municipalities flouting a state law that encourages the development of affordable housing. Jo_Johnston/Pixabay

With No Oversight, Illinois Cities Flout State Law That Encourages Affordable Housing

Gail Schechter sits on the Illinois Housing Appeals board — but it’s never heard a case.

“Suddenly, we’re down to two people. We don’t have a quorum. We can’t do business,” said Schechter, executive director of Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly.

The board is meant to provide checks and balances in the creation of affordable housing. If affordable housing developers believe they are unfairly treated and rejected by a municipality, they can go to the appeals board to advocate for their project. The unpaid bipartisan board formed in 2009 but was never fully appointed by the governor until 2012. The board is supposed to include a developer, a zoning expert and an affordable housing advocate like Schechter.

“This is why we haven’t had a case — a developer just wants to do business,” Schechter said. “If they can’t build what they want to build, they’ll go to another community.”

The board is part of the Illinois Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, which was originally passed in 2003. That law requires cities with at least 1,000 residents and with less than 10% affordable housing to submit affordable housing plans to the state. The law is intended to encourage affordable housing, but resistance is rampant.

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Many cities and towns flout the law without penalty. “Home rule” is often cited, which gives municipalities the right to self-govern with broad local authority — even if it conflicts with the state. Between towns invoking home rule and an appeals board with no teeth, many question whether the law is working.

Schechter said the law is in disarray, so she went to state Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights.

Gillespie has introduced legislation that allows developers who include 20% affordable housing to get a property tax reduction. Any suburb or town that doesn’t submit an affordable housing plan could see some state funds withheld. Another important piece of the proposed legislation addresses home rule.

“It also clarifies that home rule was never intended to allow suburbs to completely opt out of the affordable housing plan requirement,” Gillespie said.

According to 2020 data provided by the Illinois Housing Development Authority, 46 municipalities in the state have at least 1,000 residents and less than 10% affordable housing. Six of them cite home rule and say they have no intention to turn in a plan: Lake Bluff, Lincolnshire, Lincolnwood, Northfield, Wilmette and Winnetka.

Bob Palmer, policy director for the nonprofit Housing Action Illinois, said it’s not surprising that affluent white suburbs outside of Chicago don’t comply.

“Those communities historically have been very resistant to developing affordable housing. A lot of that resistance is very clearly tied to issues of racial discrimination and concerns about what integration might mean for their communities,” Palmer said. “We need broad political change, lots of different improved policies and more financial resources to solve the problem.”

Schechter said after the racial reckoning in the U.S. last summer, following the police killing of George Floyd, there’s been an opening on these issues.

“Whites are understanding the connection between fair housing and affordable housing in a way they never did before,” Schechter said.

In December, Northbrook unanimously passed an affordable housing ordinance. The suburb is 78% white with a median income of $125,000 — and less than 5.7% affordable housing. For buildings with more than five units, developers must ensure that 15% of the units are affordable rentals.

Village Trustee Heather Ross said Northbrook held more than a dozen public meetings over 18 months and did a lot of public outreach.

“Part of the issue is the misunderstanding of what affordable housing is. A lot of people in Northbrook, and a lot of suburbs, think of segregated high rises,” Ross said. “They didn’t understand that affordable housing in our statue is integrated housing; it can’t all be clustered in one area of the village or one area of a development.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.