On April 10, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) presented a check in the amount of $246,000 to the Oak Park Housing Authority. The grant, aimed at helping residents of Oak Park’s Mills Park Tower become self-sufficient, is one of six grants totaling $1.6 million shared by six Illinois municipalities.
Joseph Galvan, HUD’s Midwest regional administrator, was on hand to deliver the check and noted that the grants coincided with the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act.
“I know you’ll use this money to help empower residents,” Galvan said. “There’s only one human race. We’re all in this together, brothers and sisters. I know that with this grant, we’ll do great work.”
James R. King, director of elderly and disabled housing for the Oak Park Residence Corporation, was instrumental in applying for the grant, and alongside David Pope, executive director of the Oak Park Housing Authority, said that the grant would help at-risk populations within the community, providing a pathway for better lives for low-income seniors.
The grant will be used to hire a full-time service coordinator for Mills Park Tower as well as purchasing additional computers for the building’s computer lab.
Public Housing Manager Melissa Neyfeldt, who has worked at Mills Park Tower for 20 years, says the grant will greatly enhance the lives of the residents.
“Residents will be able to get a lot more services,” Neyfeldt said. “A full-time service coordinator can evaluate the entire building and can invest the time to really help residents get the help they need whether it’s helping residents with public aid or social security issues.”
Since its completion in 1975, Mills Park Tower has been an integral part of the public housing system in Oak Park. The 19-story building was one of the tallest buildings in Oak Park when it was constructed and consists of 198 one-bedroom apartments, measuring approximately 432 square feet each.
The building is home to elderly residents who maintain their own personal and financial needs. Located at 1025 Pleasant Place, Mills Park Tower is adjacent to Mills Park and three blocks south of downtown Oak Park.
A newly remodeled ground floor contains laundry facilities, a community room, a television for residents and a library. Mills Park Tower is one of three facilities managed by the Oak Park Housing Authority (OPHA).
Established in 1946 to provide housing for returning World War II veterans, the OPHA today acts as the public housing authority for Oak Park and administers federal programs that assist the village’s low-income population in finding affordable housing.
Through the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly known as Section 8), the OPHA provides rent subsidies to assist approximately 450 participants in leasing privately-owned rental housing.
The OPHA, in tandem with its affiliate, the Oak Park Residence Corporation, manages three rental developments – The Oaks, Mills Park Tower and the Ryan Farrelly Apartments — to serve the village’s low-income elderly and disabled population.
Life at Mills Park Tower today
Neyfeldt says the demand for low-income senior units is so high that there is always a waiting list for applicants. Under HUD guidelines, applicants must be 62 or older and, once accepted, pay 30 percent of their income towards rent, on an income-based sliding scale.
She said that the building offers proximity to downtown Oak Park, good transportation options and activities that make the building a home. From bingo and meditation to a community garden and movie nights, Neyfeldt said, “The community feel is what most people tell me they love about Mills Park Tower.”
For Jan Thomas, moving into Mills Park Tower in 2004 was the perfect retirement living solution. An Oak Park resident since 1977, she loves the village because of its diversity and found it the perfect place to raise her biracial children.
She wanted to stay in Oak Park upon retirement and found that Mills Park Tower allowed her to do so, because although she had Social Security, she did not have a pension to rely on during her retirement.
She may be retired from her previous career working for attorneys, but Thomas continues to be active managing the computer lab at Mills Park Tower.
“I run the computer room and help teach seniors how to use the computer — how to send pictures to their grandkids, and how to save the pictures their grandkids send them,” Thomas said.
On top of her work in the computer lab, Thomas said she also enjoys the social activities and often helps to plan them. From the spring dance, Valentine’s party, ice cream social and indoor summer picnic, she likes all the ways the building comes together to socialize.
“When you’re here a long time, you get to know most of the tenants,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s so nice.”
Another longtime resident, Barry Murphy, grew up in Oak Park and attended Ascension School and Oak Park and River Forest High School. After working in the city, he knew that his pension wasn’t high enough to keep him in a city apartment during retirement. With family nearby, he applied to Mills Park Tower and is happy to be back in Oak Park.
“I had been a resident for 26 years,” Murphy said. “Once I came back here, I have a lot of friends in the area, and I like being back where I grew up. I like the people and the diversity of the area. It very much reminds me of the neighborhood I had growing up in Oak Park.”
For Murphy, the apartment building operates as a tight-knit community that lets residents live the lifestyle they want without aging alone.
“The city can be very isolating,” Murphy said. “It’s such a close community here. You can be a social butterfly or be more private, but people really care about each other.”
Murphy says that prior to moving to Mills Park Tower, his rent was roughly 80 percent of his income. Now that his rent is 30 percent of his income, he feels that he can live within his means and enjoy life.
“Everyone I know in the building has worked very hard their whole lives,” Murphy said. “Now, they might depend on Social Security.”
Murphy said that the transition from a house or former life can be hard to make but called downsizing at Mills Park Tower a good choice for him.
“I entertain a lot, and I don’t feel like I’m living in a tight space,” he said. “You never have to shovel snow or cut grass. It’s a perfect place to live. It’s so comfortable to be right back in the neighborhood where I started.”