Arbor West Neighbors forum hits the mark

Opinion: Columns

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By Marc Blesoff


People spoke from the heart and from experience. Housing became the very personal, human thing that most of us just gloss over.

The Arbor West Neighbors (AWN) forum at the Oak Park Public Library last Saturday, titled "Creating and Recreating Home: Options for Aging in Community," was well attended, well organized, well informed and inspirational.

At the first of two panels, Kay Muller described herself as a 16-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family on the "wrong side of the tracks," forced to find her own place to live, first in a rooming house and eventually, 35 years of shared housing in Evanston. Kay commented that their shared housing created an "accidental family," which she didn't realize until all the kids started introducing one another as brother/sister. Her lessons included: "what you think isn't always what happens," "reality often creates your future," and "be open to possibility."

There were about 80 people in attendance, all of them interested in options for aging in community and listening intently to the large chunks of both heartfelt and very practical information — most of them with white hair and virtually all of them white.

After the opening and introductory remarks by AWN board members Barb Bodner, Brooke McMillin and Susan Stall, the forum kicked off with a personal and succinct presentation from Charlie Hoch, professor emeritus of Urban Planning at UIC. Charlie recalled his own residence history, one at a time, an exercise he recommended for all of the assembled. He talked about why shared housing is alive and well and growing, including remarks about how we all need each other, as he remembered lessons from his early work with SRO hotels in Chicago. He assured that, in our last third of life, we can think creatively about housing options that address security, safety, privacy, and predictability, i.e. affordability.

Ann Cibulskis recounted the founding of the Emma Goldman Housing Cooperative in 1991, and the practicalities of making that long-term experiment work — three units in a large house in Evanston. Valerie Werner shared lessons learned when she re-habbed a single-family residence to accommodate her mother moving in on the second floor. She referred to her Italian family history of nightly visits around the village to check on neighbors and how that impacted her adaptive re-use for intergenerational living.

After a break, the second panel continued with Barb Bodner talking about her investigation of co-housing in Baltimore as a young married with children. Then Kevin Monahan discussed the very real practicalities of Sol House Coop living in Logan Square via a modified rap: organize, mesmerize, incorporate, invest(igate), by-laws, budget, real estate, people relate, purchase, policies!

Tammie Grossman, director of the Development Customer Services Department, spoke on behalf of the village of Oak Park. She outlined several programs and recent decisions of interest to "seniors" — single-family rehab loan program, small rental rehab program, AirBnBs and coach houses in the village. There seemed to be a lot of audience interest regarding how many unrelated people are allowed to reside in a home in Oak Park.

Paul Schultz, designer/builder of the Toybox tiny home, recounted his childhood family configuration and his early interests in alternative living styles. He was clear that zoning is not the enemy to tiny homes, and in fact serves a real and important function. He emphasized that hurdles to utilizing tiny houses for older people are actually opportunities, and he commented on the difference between "living" and "existing."

The closing section of this stimulating forum was a breakout session/report back. People chose one of eight tables, each with a different topic, to dive deeper into what we had already heard. Everyone at the tables seemed involved in discussion and thought. The juices were flowing.

Through presenting this forum, Arbor West Neighbors brought to the fore important issues, information, questions and experiences around housing options for aging in our communities.

Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicago area.

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