Arist Ramirez, a Highland Park landscaper, will move into a new home renovated by the Community Partners for Affordable Housing.

"The housing is not cheap here, but I always wanted to stay in the town where I grew up," said Arist Ramirez, a Highland Park landscaper. Next month, Ramirez and his family will move into their new home on Highmoor Road after it's renovated by the Community Partners for Affordable Housing. (Gregory Trotter, Chicago Tribune)

Despite heralded efforts to provide more affordable housing options in Highland Park, the city's overall number of affordable housing units has declined since 2004, according to new state numbers released last month.

The news isn't any rosier for other towns, according to affordable housing advocates.

Since updating the list with more recent Census data, the state's number of towns with less than 10 percent affordable housing units has ballooned — from 48 in 2004 to the current list of 68 communities. Towns like Highland Park and Wilmette have been confronted by bewildering declines in affordable units shown in the state data, though Highland Park officials have questioned the accuracy of the data.

Meanwhile, Glenview is coming to terms with the distinction — dubious, the advocates would say — of joining the list for the first time, after seeing its affordable housing percentage dropped from 12.4 percent to 7.4 percent.

"There has to be political will," said Gail Schechter, executive director of Open Communities, the Winnetka-based advocacy group. "Communities have to say to themselves, people who have gotten older or who have fallen on hard times, we want them to stay in our towns."

Historically, Highland Park has been the model for affordable housing policies on the North Shore, said Schechter, who also serves on the board of directors of the State Housing Appeals Board.

Whereas some communities, like Deerfield, did not submit affordable housing plans to the state, Highland Park's approach to the issue includes a housing trust to help create more affordable units, inclusionary zoning regulations and three Section 8 housing developments.

Still, Highland Park has about 100 fewer affordable housing units, according to a comparison of the Illinois Housing Development Authority's recently updated list to the original list from 2004.

Political will has not waned in Highland Park, said Councilman Dan Kaufman, who chaired the city's Housing Commission when its affordable housing plan was drafted in 2002.

"There's no question about whether Highland Park remains a progressive and proactive community in terms of addressing affordable housing," Kaufman said. "We're still making great progress despite economic challenges."

In recent interviews, Highland Park officials questioned the state numbers, while also pointing to a decline in the area median income that has outpaced the decline in housing prices.

Since 2000, the area median income has dropped almost $9,000, said Rob Anthony, executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing, the Highland Park nonprofit that receives funding from the city's housing trust to create affordable homes.

"Even if housing prices came down a little bit, if the income came down that much, it's still not going to be counted as an affordable unit," Anthony said.

There's also the changing data. Since the state's Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act went into effect about 10 years ago, the state used 2000 U.S. Census data for its list of communities with insufficient affordable housing — until last year.

The 2013 list incorporates data as recent as 2011 from the American Community Survey, a five-year Census survey. The survey is a smaller sample with a higher margin for error, Anthony said.

"The numbers that IDHA [Illinois Housing Development Authority] comes out with are estimates and we certainly look at them," Anthony said. "But I think the bigger picture is that Highland Park is really trying to do something positive to increase the supply of affordable housing."

In the past 10 years, the Community Partners group has created 44 more affordable housing units in town, Anthony said, homes that will remain affordable in perpetuity.

Another four affordable units were created through the city's inclusionary zoning regulation, which requires new developments to be 20 percent affordable, or in certain cases, developers may pay a fee into the housing trust fund, said senior planner Lee Smith.

In the coming year, Community Partners plans to create five more affordable homes in Highland Park, Anthony said. There are also eight affordable units as part of an inclusionary set-aside in a housing development that's currently being discussed by the Plan Commission, Smith said.

Glenview officials were surprised to see the big change in the new numbers the agency released for their area.