Mary loves the commute from her job to her apartment. As one of the tenants of the recently opened 801 Van Buren St. development – “The 801” for short — in Oak Park, Mary walks across the street to her job at the bank where she been a bank employee for 32 years.
Previously, she had been priced out of Oak Park. Now, she can walk to work, and her mother also has a unit in the building, which allows Mary to take care of her in her off hours.
Kirk Albinson, project manager with The Community Builders, which developed the building, says Mary is a representative resident in a development that was built to provide high-quality, affordable housing to Oak Park’s workforce — people who might have been displaced by Oak Park’s increasing housing costs.
With regional offices in Chicago, New York, Columbus and Boston and Washington, D.C., The Community Builders has built more than 30,000 residences for a mix of incomes during its more than 50-year history.
This, their first Oak Park project, has not been without controversy. Several Oak Park residents filed unsuccessful lawsuits regarding the zoning variances granted to the development. Albinson would not comment on the litigation, but said, “We’ll do everything we can do to be good neighbors.”
Albinson says that roughly half of the building’s 37 units have a residency preference, as defined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that residents either live in or work in Oak Park.
Thirty-six of the 37 units have income requirements.
According to Albinson, income requirements range from minimum wage to a yearly income of $39,000 to $45,000 for a one-bedroom unit and $45,000 to $56,000 for a two- bedroom unit, which is roughly 30-60 percent of AMI, or Area Median Income.
Rents for individual units are based on income and unit size and currently range from $587 to $905 for a studio; $612 to $953 for a one-bedroom unit; and $1,137 for a two-bedroom unit.
The building includes three studio apartments, 30 one-bedroom units, a pair of two-bedroom units and two live/work units. One of the first-floor live/work units is restricted to someone who earns up to 60 percent of the area median income. The other live/work unit will be rented at market rent.
Albinson states that the live/work studios are a new concept for the developer. The affordable live/work space at The 801 has an artist’s preference, which means that the work space will be used for the creation of art.
“We have a mix of people living here from a chef, to a nutritionist, to teachers and bank employees,” Candyce Herron, onsite property manager, says of the current tenants. “Eighteen units are set aside for those who live or work in Oak Park. Many other tenants are native to Oak Park and have wanted to come home.”
Herron says that 32 of the 36 affordable units are leased, giving the building an 89-percent occupancy rate. She expects that number to increase to 94 percent by the end of the month.
In addition to the rental units, The 801 includes a retail space that fronts Oak Park Avenue. Albinson says they are close to identifying a tenant for the retail space and are taking care to find a tenant who will contribute to the vibrant commercial corridor on Oak Park Avenue.
The building, which received $500,000 from Oak Park’s affordable housing fund, broke ground in January 2020 and saw its first tenants move in in June 2021. The total cost of the development was $15 million.
Albinson says that while Boston-based Community Builders has been involved in affordable housing for two decades in the Chicago area, the Oak Park location checked all the boxes for the company, which tends to hold the buildings it develops for the long term.
He notes the building is the definition of transit-oriented development.
“It’s so close to the Blue Line and bus lines,” Albinson said. “It’s a very walkable location with stores, parks and schools within walking distance.”
The developers studied other affordable housing developments such as Oak Park’s The Grove, and determined that given The 801’s proximity to public transportation and community resources, 23 parking spots was the appropriate amount for the building.
Herron states that 20 of the parking spots are currently rented by tenants at a rate of $20 per month.
The Community Builders took pains to include communal spaces and quality finishes for tenants.
A top floor lounge and roof terrace provide spaces for residents to gather. The units have in-unit laundry, large closets and nine-foot ceilings with tall windows to allow an abundance of light.
On top of comfortable living conditions, the community is served by by Rose Mabwa, Director of Community Life for The Community Builders, Chicago region.
“When the development is done, I come in,” said Mabwa of her work with The Community Builders. “I take care of the people.”
Mabwa works with what she calls “asset building” — helping residents with children enroll in local schools and aiding seniors who want to age in place. She works to foster community engagement, helping residents register to vote, connect with health services and financial services. She also promotes resident leaders, helping the residents advocate for themselves.
“When we empower the residents, we empower entire communities,” Mabwa said.
That is the focus of buildings like The 801 says Albinson.
“When we invest in a community, it’s our work,” he said. “We develop and provide services.”
Mabwa chimes in, “It goes to helping the community as a whole.”