Tensions simmered during the second of a series of Oak Park Plan Commission hearings on an apartment project being proposed for Madison Street and Oak Park Avenue.
In the second go-round, developers responded to questions from residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Many focused on the low-income tenants who would be living in the 51-unit complex, formerly an office building for Comcast.
Where will these people come from? Will they have felony records? What type of supportive services will be made available to them? Is there really and truly a demand for such a affordable housing?
"You've presented only the best-case scenario; you have had this dream, fairy-tale population," said Amy Pappageorge, who lives on the 400 block of South Grove, just north of the development. Later she asked, "How can you state as a fact that this will represent this high-quality, best-case scenario?"
Chicago-based Interfaith Housing Development is hoping to purchase the long-vacant building at 820 W. Madison. They plan to gut it, strip off the façade and add two floors to transform the property into something resembling its original appearance from the 1920s when it was a Cadillac auto dealership designed by architect Albert Kahn. Interfaith is partnering with the Oak Park Housing Authority and Catholic Charities to make the project happen.
The target tenants of the $704 per month rental units, developers say, are single people, most of whom would live or work in the village already, but who can't afford to live here now. Such occupants could earn no more than $26,300 a year and could, at most, have only one child under the age of 18.
"I'm not going to represent to you that every one of the tenants who will move into this 51-unit building will be the best tenant that Oak Park has ever seen," Ed Solan, head of the housing authority, said in response to Pappageorge's question. "That would be foolish and naïve on my part to say that. But if we do have problem tenants, we will deal with them, and I expect that the overwhelming majority of tenants in the building will be outstanding."
While their preference will be to pick people who live or work here, the developers say they will not require it. Most likely, as they have done in other buildings, it will be a certain percentage of local residents — something like 9 of 10 or 6 of 7, Solan said.
Catholic Charities is in the partnership to provide "supportive services" to the tenants. But developers attempted to ease worries about such offerings. Eileen Higgins, associate vice president of Catholic Charities, said support would likely be focused on helping tenants to get better-paying jobs — such as employment training. Services would also be made available for persons with disabilities.
Solan also emphasized that the developers would screen out tenants with major felonies on their records — such as drug abusers, arsonists or people with any history of violence against others. They'd be referred to other buildings with a higher intensity of services, Higgins said.
Tenants would need to have some form of steady income and would not be provided with rent subsidies, said Perry Vietti, chief operating officer for Interfaith. Solan said there are 200 on the housing authority's waiting list, people who live or work here and would qualify to get in the building.
Residents questioned the need for such housing in Oak Park, wondering why the building couldn't house families or a mix of people with different incomes. On the other side, developers said they would need to build much higher to accommodate whole households, and they need to go all low-income to get enough tax credits to make the numbers work.
Bill McDermott expressed concern that, because of those tax credits, the developer would be required to keep the building filled with low-income tenants for decades.
"Are you concerned about the fact that, for 40 years, if something goes bad in this building, you can't change anything?" he said.
Gladys Jordan, president of Interfaith, said they could change, but it would require paying off their loans ahead of schedule, which likely "isn't realistic." The housing authority, which will likely own the property, is committed, long term, to affordable housing, she said.
The plan commission is expected to conduct its next hearing on Jan. 20, when residents will continue to question the developers.
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