Jul 28, 2014

Tempers Flare as Winnetka Halts Affordable Housing Debate

Village trustees voted to shut the door on affordable housing for now.

Tempers Flare as Winnetka Halts Affordable Housing Debate

Affordable housing, and the role of government, were on trial on Tuesday night.

At the end of a five-hour meeting, village trustees voted 4-3 to stop the affordable housing discussion in . Residents, workers and even , packed the room, with some spilling into the hallway and others sitting on the floor, through more than two hours of debate on a resolution to halt further discussions on affordable housing in a town without diverse housing stock.

"We are trying to end the divisiveness in this community," said Trustee Richard Kates, who drafted the resolution, before public comments began. According to Village Attorney Katherine Janega, future councils must draft legislation in order to discuss affordable housing in the future.

At the November meeting, trustees took a straw poll and said they would heed the results of this year's Winnetka Council Caucus poll, which suggested that most people who took the survey do not want to pursue affordable housing. About 25 percent of Winnetka households took the survey, according to the Caucus website.

In the name of civil rights

Resident Marc Hecht was one of 11 to speak against the resolution. "Sometimes legislators are dutybound to lead even if it is not popular," he said, referencing the Caucus results.

Hecht also called the resolution comparable to "taking a stick and poking it in the eye of the Illinois Attorney General, and daring her to sue Winnetka to enforce the State Affordable Housing Act. Picking a fight with the State of Illinois, on what will be seen as a traditional civil rights issue, is just crazy."

Another speaker against the resolution was former trustee King Poor, who called the resolution "plain unnecessary and uncalled for."

"It will make Winnetka stand out for going out of its way to be hostile," Poor said.

Two members of the Plan Commission spoke against the resolution, as well as a former Caucus Village Committee Chair*, Jan Bawden. "I respectively submit that you don't get to quit," Bawden said. "It's not pretty, it is not convenient, but it is all our jobs."

Winnetka lost 37.5 percent of its renter-occupied units between 1980 and 2000, according to the Plan Commission.

In support of small government

Six people spoke in favor of the resolution to end affordable housing, including Carry Buck, who led the charge against affordable housing as chairwoman of Winnetka Home Owners Association (WHOA).

"Some things that were said tonight surprise me," Buck said. "Shouldn't the trustees represent the majority of the people?"

Others mentioned a desire to avoid "federal dollars" in Winnetka, and to keep "big government from reaching into our community."

The Dance of the Trustees

For about an hour, the trustees shared their views on the discussion and acknowledged some wear-and-tear. Trustee Jennifer Spinney said her feelings were hurt by some of the comments suggesting the council was not working on the issue. Trustee Gene Greable said he has been losing sleep. Trustee Christopher Rintz shared his personal story of moving into Winnetka as an outsider. "I never thought I'd see these people turn away from controversy," he said.

After everyone shared their opinions, it was time to vote.

Trustee William Johnson expressed hesitancy at voting, and began asking the village attorney for clarification on the lasting implications of the amendment.

"No council before this council has ever taken something off the table for future councils," said Village Attorney Katherine Janega. "No council really should do that, in my opinion."

When Kates spoke out against this, Janega fired back, "I do not mince my words or shape them according to some political outcome. I have 30 years of experience in this subject area. ... You may take whatever I say and disregard it, shape it, but please do not misrepresent my words."

As the exchange continued, Village President Jessica Tucker said, "You do not need to berate our village attorney." Later Trustee Arthur Braun suggested that Janega's words had changed the tone of the issue.

Two trustees put forth an amended resolution with a temporal distinction. The wording of the amended Section Two of the resolution reads: "Given the current condition of the economy, cost of land and lack of meaningful development opportunities in the village, it is the opinion of the council that the Amended Affordable Housing Plan adopted May 10, 2005 not be amended further at this time."

In the end, the trustee vote was split, with Tucker breaking the tie in favor of the amended resolution.*

The debate about diverse housing options in Winnetka is suspended.

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* Dec. 8 11:30 a.m. Clarification: We added the word "amended" to make it clear that the 4-3 vote was on the amended resolution, not the original resolution provided by Trustee Kates. We changed Jan Bawden's title from Caucus chair to Caucus Village Committee Chair.

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