NORTH CENTER — Neither Bell nor Coonley elementary schools met projected enrollment for the 2016-17 school year, which has Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) concerned that North Center's high housing prices are driving young families away from the ward.
Millennials, saddled with college debt and/or still reeling from the recession, are already delaying major life decisions like buying homes or having children, he said.
When they're finally ready for a mortgage or kids, "We've made it impossible for them to move to neighborhoods like mine," he said.
Looking five years down the road, the alderman said he sees a future in which the area's top-rated schools will become under-enrolled and, given Chicago Public Schools per-pupil funding formula, will become under-financed as a result.
Affordable entry-level housing options such as two-flats are becoming scarce in North Center, replaced with luxury single-family homes. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Two-flats have been converted into single-family homes at a rate he couldn't have predicted, the alderman said, and the surge in million-dollar new construction homes has put North Center out of reach for middle-class families.
"There are only so many people who can afford $1.2 million homes," Pawar said.
"That young family, who could have one or two kids, how many units exist for them?" he asked. "There's just not a lot for a young family.
"You start to see that in your schools really quickly," he said.
Broker Eric Rojas of Kale Realty likened pockets of North Center to North Shore suburbs Winnetka or Wilmette.
"It's a high-end bedroom community," only with city amenities like the lakefront, museum, shopping and restaurants closer at hand, Rojas said.
Though Bell, Coonley and Audubon schools were the main draw for buyers five or 10 years ago, that's not necessarily the case today, he said. Buyers in the million-dollar range have options outside of CPS, Rojas said.
So what's North Center's appeal?
"It's because everybody's there," Rojas said of the well-heeled buyers. "They're grouping."
The trend is troublesome to Pawar not only in terms of its impact on the neighborhood's schools but small businesses as well, with larger chains likely to swoop in as they follow the money.
As a result, the alderman is rethinking his unofficial ban on two- and three-bedroom condos or apartments in the footprints of Bell and Coonley.
For the past several years, Pawar has told developers that proposals for "family-size" units in the schools' attendance areas were a non-starter. The policy was put in place to ease pressure on the overcrowded elementary schools, both of which eventually received additions. But as a consequence, there are fewer and fewer affordable options for families in the ward, he said.
"If you make a mistake, own it," Pawar said of the policy. "Now's the time to revisit that."
He's seen his peers — people in their mid-30s with young children — settle in Albany Park and Irving Park, where school ratings are on the rise but homes cost significantly less than North Center.
"They're all making these calculations, 'Why am I going to pay a half-million-dollar premium to live in Bell?" Pawar said.
The solution: "It makes sense to have more entry-level units in the $200,000 to $300,000 range," he said.
In the same way that he prioritized neighborhood schools since taking office in 2011, Pawar said he will beat the drum for diversified housing during the remainder of his second term.
North Center's modest entry-level homes are being replaced with million-dollar luxury models. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
"What I'm going to do is start to talk about long-term issues — I'm talking about it now because I can see it coming," he said of demographic shifts. "I want people to think about development and housing policy. Diversity in housing is a good thing."
Pawar said he's prepared to face opposition, particularly in terms of the density associated with multi-unit housing.
"We've lost a lot of housing units and we've lost a lot of people — we need to grow," Pawar said. "But we let neighborhoods thin out of people because of parking and cars."
The ward can't afford to be reflexively anti-development, he said.
"It's hard for people to think five years down the road when schools are crowded today ... but we need to deal with the future now," Pawar said.
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