Community panelists discuss need for affordable housing in Naperville

Naperville quickly felt like home to Kate Melekhova when she became pregnant with twins and decided to settle down in the safe, thriving community.

Her situation took a turn for the worse, however, when she had to file an order of protection against her husband. The newly single mom didn't have a job, her sons had health problems, and she was unable to afford her monthly rent of $1,450.

It “felt like a miracle” when Melekhova received housing assistance through various DuPage County nonprofits. The only downside, she said, is that she was unable to find a permanent home within her price range in Naperville — near her church, close friends, and the doctors and therapists who were able to help her boys.

“Of course I wished to stay here and still be connected with the community that had become my family over those years,” said Melekhova, who now lives in a Westmont home provided by the DuPage Habitat for Humanity. “It's unfortunate that I was not able ... to look at any other options.”

Melekhova's situation is one example of the need for more affordable housing in the area, local advocates said Monday during a “community conversation” on the topic. Seniors, young professionals, empty nesters, veterans and various other demographics also could benefit from a more diverse housing stock, they said.

“Housing stability is the basis for a positive quality of life,” said Mary Beth Nagai of the DuPage Housing Alliance. “Over the years, I have seen housing to rent and own in Naperville become more and more expensive. At the same time, affordable housing availability has decreased. Many members of the community are not in a position to find stable housing they can afford.”

Dozens of residents and city leaders attended the discussion organized by City Councilman John Krummen and DuPage County Board member Dawn DeSart. The event comes about a month after the city council set a goal that 20% of affordable housing be included in any future development planned along 5th Avenue.

The city soon will have to submit a plan for increasing affordable housing to meet a state mandate that requires 10% of a municipality's residences be affordable, Krummen said. Naperville falls short at 7.5%, with about 3,800 homes defined as affordable out of roughly 50,000.

“Government regulations should not be the driving force to add more affordable housing,” Krummen said. “Our community vision is to be the best we can be by valuing all community members.”

Resident pushback and political skepticism, however, can often make it difficult to implement such housing, panelists said.

There's a common misconception that affordable units are of lower quality than market-rate residences, or that they attract the wrong type of tenants, said Dave Neary, executive director of DuPage Habitat for Humanity. In reality, he said, affordable residences can be seamlessly integrated into neighborhoods and multifamily developments.

Government programs and funding opportunities require developers to meet certain guidelines and include various amenities to make the affordable units more cutting-edge, Neary said. Companies with emerging technology, for example, will often be willing to fund putting their products in affordable homes to show off how it works.

“This isn't your grandpa's affordable housing anymore,” he said. “There is so much going on within this space that didn't exist a few decades ago that make affordable housing and the opportunities it provides ... really an asset.”

The Illinois Housing Development Authority defines affordable housing in a two-step process using the area's median household income.

First, it says the type of occupant used to set the affordable definition is a person or family making 60% of the area median household income, adjusted for family size. Then, it takes the amount of money earned at 60% of area median income and says the rent must be no more than 30% of that amount.

There are several ways a developer or local government can ensure certain units stay affordable in the long term, said David Lyon, vice president of real estate development for Mercy Housing Lakefront, an affordable housing developer. Implementing those policies typically requires political will and community acceptance, he said.

“(Governments) do have an influence,” Neary said, “and they have the ability to create the neighborhoods and the communities that we'd like to see from an affordability perspective.”

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