For the first time in over a decade, Chicago has a stand-alone Department of Housing dedicated to providing affordable options for city residents.
From 2008 to 2019, the agency operated under the Department of Planning and Development. But former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought back the DOH earlier this year, in part to help roll out his five-year housing plan.
So how exactly is the revamped city agency encouraging affordable development while fighting against entrenched segregation?
One program the department oversees is the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), which requires developers who receive something from the city, like funding or a zoning change, to keep a percentage of their units affordable.
“The goal of the ARO is to create opportunities for households to live affordably where they can’t live right now,” says Marisa Novara, the department’s commissioner. “Because we’ve had a century of racial and economic segregation that’s cut off parts of the city for people to be able to live affordably.”
Developments regulated by the ARO must be 10% to 20% affordable, depending on where they are located in the city.
But in some cases, developers can keep their new developments market rate, and instead fund affordable units off-site, or pay an in-lieu fee to a general affordable housing fund.
Now, the DOH is launching a review of the program, which will include focus groups, public comment sessions, and a task force of about 20 people from across Chicago.
The review process will evaluate the ARO’s current affordability percentage, what income levels it should serve, and if off-site units should be allowed to replace on-site ones.
“Making the ARO better was something that is a perpetual goal,” Novara said.
The ARO is just one program the DOH uses to encourage affordable housing development around the city. And it’s a relatively small percentage of the overall affordable units they help provide.
“Since 2003, the ARO is on track to produce around a thousand units actually built out, on site,” Novara said. “And we produce more than that every year through our low-income housing tax credits, and other multi-family tools that we have.”
But Novara says the program remains critical to providing more inclusive housing in Chicago.
“It’s first and foremost, from the city’s perspective, a tool to reverse a century of racial and economic segregation,” she said.