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The case for affordable housing

by Mac McIntyre

Are we, in DeKalb County, losing our identity? This question is the seed of fear among many planners and policy-makers who play vital roles in the shaping of the county’s communities.  Growth is coming. Growth is coming! What can we do to protect the unique identity of our communities so that DeKalb, Genoa, Sycamore, Cortland, Hinckley, Somonauk and Sandwich do not become just another Chicago suburb?

The selected savior chosen for preserving our identity appears to be the downtown districts and historic sites within each community.  The politically correct thinking is that these are the things that make a community unique and all its own.  Popular theory is not always right.

Preserving historic sites is a worthy effort as these sites act as the torches to pass along to succeeding generations of how things came to be.  Preserving downtown districts makes sense because they are often the last vestiges for small independent merchants and businesses found in a community. But these things are not a community’s identity.

Its people are.

Are we losing our identity? Yes. The culprit?  The lack, make that the absence, of affordable housing. There are families that have lived in DeKalb County since the days before barbed wire was invented. But they are vanishing at an accelerated rate because their newest generations are moving out of the area to find affordable housing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the median household income for DeKalb County is just under $30,000 per year.  It’s a realistic number to use for one of our new families just starting out.  The median selling price for a home in the county is around $135,000. That price tag has risen almost 30-percent in the last ten years.  Do the math.  Most (median) people who live here can’t afford most of the homes we have. Especially the new generations who do not have equity to soften the mortgage.  And so our youngsters, our identity, move.

Go to any residential developer and ask if they could sell homes that would meet the affordability index for the median incomes of DeKalb County. 

“Like hotcakes,” is their answer. 

Then why don’t they develop affordable housing?

“Are you nuts!” is their reply.

Affordable housing is not a politically correct phrase to use with city planning commissions and city councils.  Its almost a sure bet to lose the thousands of dollars needed to even present such an idea as a planned development to City Hall.  Affordable housing has been made synonymous with low income housing in the minds of the powers-that-be.  An affordable house does not generate enough real estate taxes to suit those who collect and spend those dollars. And so our youngsters, our identity, move.

Developers of mid-to-high-end residential neighborhoods know they must market these properties to the affluent suburbanites.  They have the income to afford these properties. And so our youngsters, our identity, move.

The affordable housing DeKalb County needs is not for low incomes.  It is for median incomes.  The affordable housing DeKalb County needs is not for residents of the suburbs.  It is for the young people who already live here.

The fear of becoming just another suburb of Chicago will become reality if the price of a home is regulated to generate a desirable amount of real estate taxes.  Fill our communities with people from the suburbs of Chicago and they will become our identity.  Perhaps our younger generations will come back and visit those old historic sites sometime and remember how it used to be.

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