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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

A Light in the Window: Siting Needs Special Housing

by Katrina Van Valkenburg

At the corner of Oakdale and Greenview, in the Lakeview community of Chicago sits a three-story brick convent. It shares a block with the rest of St. Alphonsus Parish, which also includes a church, a rectory, an elementary school, and a theater. St. Alphonsus Parish and the Redemptorist Order of Catholic priests have occupied this corner for 112 years. By 1997, the 44 School Sisters of Notre Dame who had lived in the convent had dwindled to six, and plans were made to relocate them to other homes in the city. The convent was vacant.

Deborah’s Place, an organization that serves homeless or formerly homeless women, was seeking a new home for its two-year transitional housing program, Marah’s. The location where the program had been housed for nine years would soon no longer be available. At the same time, Teresa’s, a transitional shelter, was out-growing its space, so Deborah’s Place decided to seek a property that could house both the transitional housing program and the transitional shelter, and approached the Parish about renting the convent.

The Struggle for St. Alphonsus Convent

St. Alphonsus Parish covers a full city block. In the early years the Parish served a predominantly German immigrant population and was a thriving community center. It was a working class community that is remembered as “tough” by residents who lived there as children. Over the years Hispanic families moved into some of the single family homes in the area around the church, which adapted to meet their needs. Today the church offers two services in Spanish and one in German in addition to its services in English, every Sunday.

In the 1980s, the Lakeview area around St. Alphonsus began to gentrify. First in small, then in larger numbers, people with more money began to buy property. The value of property there began to accelerate. According to census data, between 1980 and 1990, rents increased 214%, SRO housing units declined by 45% and the value of single family homes appreciated by 94%. Census data in 2000 is sure to show a more accelerated rate of change. Today, houses that were purchased in the 1960s for less than $10,000 border newly constructed masonry single family homes selling for $600,000. Evident from conversations with community members is the distrust that exists between the long-term and the new residents of the community.

Deborah’s Place is a 13 year old not-for-profit organization with a variety of programs and services for single women without children in their care, at three sites in Chicago. These services include: an overnight shelter, a transitional shelter, a daytime support center, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, an education and employment program, and a case management and a therapeutic services program. In 1997, Deborah’s Place also launched a business plan for a venture that would offer income to women not able to access more traditional forms of employment (Now called Womancraft, Inc., the business sells handmade papers and jewelry). Simultaneously, Deborah’s Place was also beginning the development process for 90 units of supportive permanent housing for homeless women. This building is now in the construction phase and will be operational in early 2000.

The unexpected task of relocating Marah’s had been an organizational strain, so finding a site at St. Alphonsus Parish was viewed with relief by Deborah’s Place. St. Alphonsus had been planning the use of their property with the architecture firm of McBride & Kelley. The architects had suggested that the parish consider a communal form of housing for their land and did some early research on senior housing. They discovered, though, that the cost to convert the building for this type of use was too high. When they heard about the interest of Deborah’s Place in using the building for transitional housing for women and their willingness to pay for all rehabilitation of the property, it seemed a perfect fit. The convent’s large communal spaces and small private bedrooms were ideal for a transitional housing program. The chapel could become a meditation or living room and the library could become a learning center. This plan would enable Deborah’s Place to operate in a structure well suited for communal use and the church would gain rental income.

All transitional housing programs in Chicago must secure a zoning variance referred to as a Special Use Permit. This zoning variance requires the endorsement of the Alderman responsible for the ward in which the property is located. The Alderman was approached. His response was that Deborah’s Place and St. Alphonsus would first need to meet with a local neighborhood organization called the South Lakeview Neighbors Association (SLN) and win their approval of the plans. If they were successful, they would gain his endorsement as well.

Accordingly, the leadership of SLN was given a tour of Deborah’s Place properties and the opportunity to pose questions about Marah’s and the transitional shelter, Teresa’s. Deborah’s Place and St. Alphonsus Parish made a formal presentation to the SLN membership, but the proposal was voted down. Concerns expressed that night by the group included that the women would hurt the schoolchildren, that the neighboring property values would be negatively affected, that there was a possibility of illegal activity, and that the density of the program was inappropriate for a residential community. A Chicago Tribune article noted, “In Lakeview, where homes across the street from St. Alphonsus sold for about $600,000, …there is some sneaking suspicion that there is a racist component in this since most of the women served are black, and Lakeview is an overwhelming white neighborhood.”

Since the Alderman backed the decision of the community group, the issue was effectively dead. But St. Alphonsus, who had owned this block of land for 112 years and Deborah’s Place, who desperately needed to find a new home for a program for 22 women, were not ready to give up. This vote marked the beginning of a long and arduous battle to fight the NIMBY (not in my backyard) response. It was the start of a struggle that would leave many neighbors at odds and no longer speaking by the time it was over more than a year later.

Deborah’s Place and the church began to hold weekly strategy sessions. They met with the Lakeview Clergy Association and the Lakeview Action Coalition (LAC), two groups who vowed their support. Through the Lakeview Clergy Association, contact was made with parishioners at the local churches and synagogue and more individuals joined the effort that was now referred to as the New Home for Marah’s Campaign. Weekly meetings continued and the group discussed issues of community control. What does it mean when a discrete community group makes a decision for an area? How does this affect neighbors who are not members of this group? St. Alphonsus parishioners reviewed the plan and voted to support the effort to lease the convent to Deborah’s Place. Members of the Alderman’s staff were in attendance and observed the vote. The church was offered a $10,000 donation if they were to use the convent for another purpose and a fist fight broke out between two members of the congregation.

That October, the strategy team, members of the parish, and LAC held a rally in the parking lot and boarded a bus for the founding convention of United Power for Action and Justice, an coalition of labor unions, churches, synagogues, mosques, and organizations. There, Father Morin of St. Alphonsus Parish spoke of the Deborah’s Place effort to a group of 10,000 people. In early November, the strategy group began a door-to-door campaign within the boundaries of SLN to enlist support through petitions. Supporters were also urged to write and call the Alderman.

When a large number of supporters tried to join the SLN, the group froze its membership rolls. Membership remained frozen until the following January and they also kept in their by-laws a ban on all new members voting until their third month of membership. The Alderman began collecting petitions of neighbors who opposed the project.

The proposal for the property was then revised to eliminate siting the transitional shelter at the convent with the transitional housing program. This change was made to respond to SLN criticism that focused on the transient nature of a transitional shelter that takes in women for only four months. This left the transitional housing program, which houses women for two years at the site.

SLN, however, refused to review the revised proposal.

A group of more than 50 religious leaders and nuns who had lived in the building held a press conference at the convent. They offered their support and spoke of the need for religious institutions to control the use of their property. The Redemptorist Order has a mission to serve the poor and most abandoned and wanted to lease the convent to Deborah’s Place. A candle was placed in the window of the convent to burn until the women could be welcomed in as residents. After this press conference the newspaper Inside wrote, “The issue points to a growing problem in gentrifying neighborhoods — whether and under what conditions newer, upwardly mobile neighbors can coexist with programs that help the disadvantaged.”

Several offers by private developers, including individuals affiliated with members of SLN, were made to the parish to convert the convent to condominiums or to replace the convent with townhomes.

The following December, a group of 800 supporters gathered at the church for a candlelight vigil in support of Deborah’s Place moving into the convent. This event was covered by both print and television media. Women who were homeless were filmed carrying candles into the building and placing them in the windows to mark their hope for a new home. Deborah’s Place and the Parish announced that they had collected 3,500 signatures in support. After months of stating that the community had “spoken” on the Deborah’s Place proposal, the Alderman announced he was willing to take another look.

SLN, at the request of the Alderman, agreed to review the revised proposal. In January 1998 the Alderman asked Deborah’s Place to proceed with filing for the required Special Use Permit. The Alderman also announced that he planned to resign but that he would stay in office until the issue was resolved.

An open house was held at the convent for all neighbors. At their next meeting, the SLN voted down the revised proposal. That March, a group of religious and social service leaders held a press conference asking for the support of the Alderman and the Mayor.

Soon after, Cardinal Francis George visited the women of Marah’s. Just before his arrival, the Alderman called to express his support for the Special Use Permit. On March 20th, Deborah’s Place went before the Zoning Board of Appeals. The room was packed, and questions were asked of Deborah’s Place. Several opponents of the proposal spoke out against it. Deborah’s Place waived its right to have people speak. Instead the Board asked supporters to stand, and nearly the entire room rose to its feet. The Special Use Permit was approved.

The Meaning of Community Control

Siting special needs housing has become an increasingly difficult struggle. Ironically many of the public notice requirements for federal funding which have been instituted in an effort to encourage community input often reinforce this difficulty. It is time special needs housing be protected under fair housing and disability law, because refusing to allow people into a community because they are different is discrimination. The time and resources required to battle NIMBY issues are out of the reach of most small organizations.

Deborah’s Place and St. Alphonsus won the right to place a transitional housing program in the convent through a complex web of approaches, but there are several that were crucial to their success. These include the dozens of people who were willing to turn out for weekly meetings for nearly a year, the media coverage of 50 print articles and several television reports, involvement of existing membership-based organizations who joined the campaign, and, the most labor intensive, but most critical strategy, the door-to-door solicitations to document community support. This documentation underpinned the argument that the greater community was indeed not represented by the local community group who opposed the project.

After a fifteen month conflict the project will go forward. But the conflict raised many questions. What does community control mean? Do ruling concerns represent the voices of all constituents? What resources are required to site special needs housing? How do we break down barriers between people who see difference as a threat? How do we create healthy communities that support the diversity of people we have to house? Until these issues are resolved, siting special needs housing will continue to be a struggle that is won or lost, battle by battle, and the emotional and financial cost will remain dear.

Katrina Van Valkenburg is the Director of Project development for Deborah’s Place, and Senior Coordinator for Supportive Housing Providers Association in Illinois. Deborah’s Place, 1742 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 T: 773-292-0707, F: 773-292-0377 kvvandmhn@aol.com

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