By Breann Gala

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has an 80-year history in public housing—from helping form the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the 1930s to playing an organizing role with the nation’s largest public housing transformation. Given decades of work in the City of Chicago, MPC has now been focusing on how to translate these lessons learned to the Chicago suburbs and bring focus to the connection between housing and transit, economic development and neighborhood stability. One major initiative is the Regional Housing Initiative, an effort between MPC and eight regional housing authorities to expand housing choices for low-income renters. MPC also partners with suburban housing authorities looking to build mixed-income communities on the sites of previously isolated public housing developments.

Last summer, Urban Land Institute and MPC conducted a two-day technical assistance panel to support the City of Aurora, located roughly 40 miles west of Chicago, and Aurora Housing Authority (AHA) as they grapple with determining if and what to rebuild on Jericho Circle, a former public housing site on the city’s southwest side. The panel also discussed creative strategies for managing the growing number of foreclosed, vacant homes in the western neighborhoods and policies aimed at meeting the need for affordable housing across the city. The 11-member panel, with support from MPC and ULI staff, interviewed dozens of Aurora residents and stakeholders, crunched data and debated the complex social, land use, political and economic challenges at play. The results are highlighted in the report Affordable Housing Strategies.

Aerial map of Jericho Circle

City of Aurora

Aurora has had an interesting history in the past decade, including a 40 percent drop in crime over the past five years, growth in private investment (businesses invested over $126 million in 2012), and a steady rise in Hispanic and Latino residents. Despite such advances, Aurora struggles with poverty concentration, underperforming schools on its west side, and a growing need for quality affordable rental housing. The last challenge—the lack of quality rental housing—has been compounded by the demolition of Jericho Circle, a former AHA public housing site, in 2012. Jericho Circle, a physically and socially isolated housing development, fell into disrepair and was approved for demolition in 2010 for the second time in its history. Understandably there are political and social sensitivities surrounding Jericho Circle, making the need for expert advice from ULI and MPC important to the City’s next steps.

In short, here are a few of the panel’s top recommendations:

  1. The City and AHA prioritize replacing the 145 units lost at Jericho Circle in neighborhoods across Aurora. The City and AHA were encouraged to focus on improving the quality of rental housing and consider new uses for vacant buildings, new construction and single-family rental housing opportunities across a range of neighborhoods.
  2. The City and AHA explore non-housing options for Jericho Circle. At the time of the panel, Aurora University was looking for a large parcel to expand and build an athletic complex but their plans may have changed since the panel. In that case, the recommendation is to build a low-density, mixed-use and mixed-income complex at Jericho Circle, incorporating both on-site retail and a diverse resident base as safeguards against concentrated poverty.
  3. The City and AHA should incorporate single-family rental housing as one aspect of a diverse quality affordable housing strategy. Currently, AHA and Brinshore Development, a reputed affordable housing developer, are renovating 40 single-family homes to integrate low- and moderate-income housing into neighborhoods across the city. While this approach “kills two birds with one stone” by addressing vacancy and foreclosure and providing affordable housing, the panel recommended against single-family rental housing as a panacea for Aurora’s affordable housing needs. Assembling foreclosed single-family homes is challenging for developers, and living in single-family homes is not suitable for many people. For example, a significant proportion of AHA families are elderly, disabled or generally unfit to take charge of plowing, mowing lawns and maintaining a single-family home. Learn more about single-family rental housing in MPC’s Managing Single-Family Rental Homes report.
  4. Continue promoting housing and retail development in downtown Aurora. Downtown Aurora has immense potential that can build off existing investments in the Metra commuter station; RiverEdge Park, a new entertainment district; Waubonsee Community College; and the brewery Two Brothers Roundhouse. The panel suggested downtown student housing for Aurora University or Waubonsee Community College, for example.

Moving forward, MPC is committed to supporting the City and AHA as they draft policies and design programs to create a balanced housing stock and vibrant neighborhoods. For those interested in learning more, please see the full report or contact Breann Gala.