Giving Back: Morgante Wilson’s John Leonard lends his expertise to bringing permanent affordable housing to Chicago’s North Shore

Morgante Wilson Architects

Jun 28, 2022 - 5 min read

Giving Back: Morgante Wilson’s John Leonard lends his expertise to bringing permanent affordable housing to Chicago’s North Shore

At Morgante Wilson Architects, we are proud of our work with local organizations that share our same beliefs about the importance of home and the idea that everyone deserves a place that makes them feel safe and that they can call their own. As a smaller, family-owned firm, we’re able to roll up our sleeves and get involved hands-on, making a positive difference in our community through our relationships with organizations such Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH) as well as our efforts through the Morgante Wilson Foundation (MWF), which we founded to focus our company’s philanthropic efforts on supporting the creation of sustainable, affordable housing.

Given MWA’s dedication to causes related to affordable housing, it is especially gratifying that many of our team members share our commitment and are actively involved themselves. A great example is MWA principal John Leonard, who sits on the boards of MWF and CPAH and plays an integral role in the success of both groups. John donates his time and leverages his 14 years of experience as a residential architect at MWA to promote affordable housing options and homeownership across Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. We recently sat down with John to talk about his role and personal work with CPAH and MWF:

How did you first get involved with CPAH?

My involvement began nearly a decade ago when the Citizens’ Lighthouse Community Land Trust – which eventually merged with a larger regional land trust to become part of Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH) – approached Morgante Wilson Architects to support its community land trust model for creating and preserving affordable housing. Elissa Morgante and Fred Wilson saw this as an opportunity to get deeply involved with a cause that aligned with their values, and Elissa asked if I would be interested in helping the organization. I was happy to do so, and our work with Citizens’ Lighthouse segued to our current involvement with CPAH when the two groups joined forces in YEAR.

What type of work do you do for CPAH?

Since starting my involvement, I’ve become the main liaison between CPAH and MWA and oversee the pro-bono architectural service we provide to them. That includes everything from helping identify properties to purchase, to drafting plans and applying for construction permits. I often rely on my professional network to connect with consultants such as structural engineers, mechanical engineers and surveyors who are willing to donate their time for these projects.

Based on my work with CPAH and the deep understanding it gave me of the organization’s goals as well as the need for more affordable housing in our area, I was eventually invited to serve on the CPAH advisory board in Evanston – a position I’ve held for the past four years. A significant component of that role is advocacy – meeting with local municipalities, village councils and neighbors to promote the land trust model and the idea that attainable housing for working families is not only needed but also beneficial to these communities.

Over the years, CPAH has successfully created and preserved several hundred units of affordable housing across the northern suburbs, including everything from multifamily rental units to for-sale single-family homes, and I’m proud to have played a part in that.

What is your role with the Morgante Wilson Foundation?

In 2020, Elissa and Fred launched their own nonprofit, the Morgante Wilson Foundation, to help bring affordable housing to the North Shore with the belief that thoughtful and affordable homes are necessary for people to grow and thrive and become part of a community.

Given my experience working on affordable housing and my relationship with CPAH – which is an important partner for MWF – Elissa and Fred thought I was a natural fit for MWF and asked me to serve on its board.

It’s been exciting to be involved with MWF from the start, helping to shape its mission and focus, building up our network of supporters and communicating about what we hope to accomplish. It was especially gratifying to be part of a ribbon cutting last fall that celebrated a successful collaboration between MWF and CPAH on Wilmette’s first permanently affordable home using community land trust principles.

Why do you believe so strongly in the community land trust model?

The benefit of the land trust model used by CPAH and advocated by MWF is that the land gets put into a trust into perpetuity, so it won’t revert back someday for a developer to resell at market rate. This takes the burden off the state to constantly replenish the affordable housing stock and creates more opportunities for working-class families to live within the communities in which they work.

Funding comes from various sources, including public grants, private donations and fees that larger developers pay in exchange for zoning variances. Families who own these homes can still reap the wealth-creating benefits of homeownership by selling the buildings for a profit, but the appreciation is capped to allow it to remain affordable. The cost to purchase the home will always be below market value because the land is held in the trust.

Why is creating this kind of housing in the North Shore important?

For a community to really thrive, you want a mix of housing that’s attainable for a variety of incomes. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening in Chicago’s most affluent North Shore suburbs, which were already pricy and are only becoming less affordable. The goal of MWF and CPAH is to provide attainable housing that a teacher, police officer, firefighter or restaurant worker employed in these communities can afford, without having to drive a long way to get to their job. People that work every day on the North Shore should have a path to become part of the community, enjoy neighborhood amenities and send their kids to the local school system.

What’s next for CPAH and MWF?

Morgante Wilson Architects recently assisted CPAH on a mixed-use, multifamily rental property in Gurnee, where the organization is working to create nine affordable units and office space. We redesigned the floor plate to accommodate four additional residences without having to go through the process of a zoning variance.

On the Morgante Wilson Foundation front, we are currently focused specifically on Wilmette but plan to branch out across the North Shore. We recently helped fund and deliver the first of 14 planned community land trust units in the community and are working to raise funds for the land trust to acquire more properties – which can be a difficult process in a hot real estate market such as the North Shore. As MWF’s work leads to the delivery of more affordable residences, we will qualify for matching public grants, which will help us fund and create even more stable housing for working families.

It’s been rewarding to play a hands-on role in these projects and bring together so many professionals from all parts of the industry to create permanent affordable housing options in communities where it is desperately needed.