On May 31, L’Arche Chicago broke ground on the group’s first new-construction home. Construction on the house at 1111 S. East Ave. in Oak Park is expected to take about 13 months, and once completed, the residence will house four L’Arche core members and three to four assistants.
Founded in 1964 in France, L’Arche is a worldwide organization dedicated to creating intentional communities made up of homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.
In 1999 after L’Arche founder Jean Vanier spoke at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, a benefactor donated a house, allowing the group to open their first home in the Chicago area. Today, the organization owns three homes in the Chicago area — two in Forest Park and one in Austin.
Core members with disabilities are welcome in their L’Arche homes for life, and many join L’Arche homes when they are in their 20s. Core members and assistants have a shared-living situation, with assistants offering support in day-to-day tasks.
L’Arche’s Chicago Executive Director Mic Altena says the inspiration to build a home from the ground up came from some of their existing core members’ needs.
“As we were realizing that we had additional mobility issues amongst our existing core members, we thought about new construction, because it’s just so hard to retrofit a 100-year-old home,” he said.
The group began to look for a vacant lot or teardown that was near their existing three homes, close to the CTA Blue Line in the western suburbs. Through word of mouth, they found the vacant lot on East Avenue.
“We always look for homes near community resources,” Altena said. “Here, we have restaurants on Roosevelt, Rehm Pool and Park, the Oak Park Conservatory and the Blue Line.”
He is also excited to be building the first L’Arche home in Oak Park and calls the community with its pride in civic engagement and integration a great fit.
At the groundbreaking, L’Arche Chicago board member Kim Bryze emphasized the need for the new home.
“There are over 7,000 people in Illinois waiting for housing like this, so this is important,” Bryze said. “It’s family. Once someone is in L’Arche, they’re in for life.”
Altena stresses that L’Arche cannot begin to meet the need in the community and notes that Illinois is ranked 44th out of the 50 states for funding disability services. He also notes that L’Arche is not state-funded but is supported by fundraising.
Luckily, when L’Arche first identified the vacant lot as a potential building site, they had enough money saved to purchase the lot. The nonprofit organization worked with a consultant to create an estimate of roughly $2 million to construct the house and embarked on a one-year capital campaign to raise funds to build it.
As of 3 p.m. on the day of the ground-breaking, the entire $2 million goal had been funded. Because of increased costs post-pandemic, Altena will still need to borrow roughly $500,000 to cover the increased construction expenses.
L’Arche is working with Oak Park architect Bill Scholtens of Elements Architectural Group and contactor Jeremy Lew of Northbrook to construct the accessible home, which will include an elevator, a mudroom, and accessible bedrooms and bathrooms for core members and assistants, as well as a large kitchen and dining room for the group meals that bring residents together every day.
The hope is that the building will be complete in 13 months. Three existing core members who have physical limitations will move into the house, along with one new member. L’Arche will identify three new core members to move into the spots left vacant in the existing homes.
Altena points out that for every spot they have available, L’Arche typically receives more than 300 applications.
“There’s a need for more accessible homes within Chicago and within L’Arche, but we are going to do this right and are being slow and deliberate,” Altena said.
“We want to design homes that are smaller than the average Illinois group home to provide a higher quality of life.”