By Dan Haley
There are, I think, legitimate questions left for the newly seated Oak Park village board to ask before its members vote shortly on the plan for three non-profits to convert the former Comcast building on Madison Street into 50-plus apartments for low income people.
But after touring two of the West Side apartment buildings run by Interfaith Housing Development last Saturday morning — along with three trustees, the village president and clerk, and a small number of sincere critics of the Oak Park project — there are also doubts that can be scratched from my list.
We rode in a small park district bus to visit Sanctuary Place on Kedzie Avenue near Chicago Avenue and later traveled to Sankofa House on Roosevelt Road. Both projects were built from scratch by Interfaith within the past eight years. One cost $8.1 million, the other $15 million to build. Each building is handsome, airy, filled with natural light and dotted with thoughtful architectural features. Some features are for the benefit of residents — an extra closet adjacent to each apartment in the building geared toward female residents, for example. Others go toward a strong sustainability focus — rooftop wind turbines, solar hot water heating.
Clearly to me, these are buildings that reflect Interfaith's long expertise in supportive housing, which are customized to the needs of each building's "mission," and which incorporate an evolving approach to supportive housing. Gladys Jordan, president of the group and our tour guide on Saturday, was plain in explaining that over the years her organization has moved from creating buildings that were more institutional, heavy, even smothering with social services, to a model centered on apartment buildings with a more subtle underlayment of services for tenants who need varying levels of help.
Last Saturday morning, these buildings were spotless to shining, quiet and staffed by people ranging from passionate to serene. Cynics could conclude that the kids all got shipped to a park, that the floor waxers had been humming all night on Friday. Didn't feel that way to me though.
Each Interfaith project, and there are 15, all in the city, is structured along similar lines. Interfaith is the developer. They line up the financing using every tool left in the federal tax credit arsenal. They find social service partners who come to the project with a specific social service mission. Sanctuary Place is focused on housing for women, mostly ex-offenders looking to get a footing to restart lives. Sankofa House is family housing with a focus on what they call "grandfamilies," or grandmothers raising their kids' kids.
In the Oak Park project, the social service partners are the Oak Park Housing Authority and Catholic Charities. The Housing Authority has been around for decades and has focused on turning around and then running Oak Park apartment buildings with a singular focus on racial diversity. It also runs supportive senior housing at Mills Park and the Oaks, and specialized housing for individuals with physical disabilities. With this project, they plan to offer a new service aimed at local residents who are working but have low incomes.
Critics ask, "How quantifiable is this need?" With all the state and federal regulations inevitable in this type of project, how real are the assurances of Interfaith and the Housing Authority that they can keep the residents in this building local and not become a spillover from the West Side? Interfaith seems confident. This is a case they'll need to make to the village board.
What other questions remain? As always in Oak Park it comes down to parking and the first floor retail being forced into this project. Is there enough parking? And why retail, on a street that is already struggling to fill spaces? Those are issues for the village board to discern.
Beyond that, I'm convinced. These are smart people with good hearts. Time to get past the noise of "bringing Cabrini to Oak Park." This is not that. This is a project that a progressive community like Oak Park embraces.