United Power moved Comcast project forward

Justice group credited with advancing the moral argument for affordable housing

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Would the Comcast building development have been voted down had the community organizing coalition, United Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ) not been pushing for it from the start of the approval process in January to the project's approval by the Oak Park Board of Trustees on May 23?

"I think United Power's involvement was critical," said Trustee Adam Salzman. "I think that at the policymaking level, it's much easier to talk in terms of dollars and cents. ... United Power's argument was a moral one — that this was the right and just thing to do. ... That sort of discourse is often missing from board discussion."

Trustees Glenn Brewer and Colette Lueck said that the facts presented to them, not the influence of United Power itself, determined how they voted.

"The trustees based their decision on the Findings of Fact and the record from the plan commission public hearing," Lueck said. "I think that United Power for Action and Justice was instrumental in providing to the plan commissioners and the board significant reasons for why the project met the standards in the Planned Development Ordinance. They also made sure that the board understood that there was significant public support for this project."

United Power for Action and Justice is a "broad-based citizen organization," according to UPAJ organizer Amy Totsch. It was founded in 1997 at the UIC Pavilion with 10,000 leaders from religious, civic and labor institutions across the city and suburbs in attendance.

Their website states: "United Power for Action and Justice is an independent, non-partisan, self-funding organization of churches, synagogues, mosques, civic, neighborhood, health, and ethnic institutions from across Cook County. These institutions have joined together to fight for social justice and the common good on issues of shared concern."

Present member organizations include faith communities like the Chicago Sinai Congregation, the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Park Ridge. Health care organizations like Advocate Health Care and the Lawndale Christian Health Center are members, along with community organizations like the Interfaith Leadership Project of Cicero, Berwyn & Stickney and the Southwest Organizing Project. Good Shepherd Lutheran, Euclid Ave. United Methodist and Ascension Catholic churches in Oak Park, the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park and Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest all participate.

UPAJ was involved in the Comcast issue from the beginning. In fact, there might not have been a Comcast proposal had United Power not been addressing the affordable housing issue. Dave Roth, the director of Advocacy at Lutheran Child and Family Services in River Forest, helped spearhead the UPAJ campaign to approve the redevelopment of the Comcast property into affordable, integrated and accessible housing, an issue, Roth said, that has been in the mix for United Power almost from the beginning because the issues the coalition addresses are raised by the members themselves.

Jim Schwarber, a longtime member of United Power and Ascension Catholic Church, said, "One of UPAJ's signature issues has been affordable housing. We were instrumental in getting $145 million in the Capital Budget for affordable housing from the state of Illinois."

UPAJ got involved with the Comcast project, he said, by initiating it. He and other United Power leaders got together with Perry Vietti, C.O.O. of Interfaith Housing Development Corp., and Ed Solon, executive director of the Oak Park Housing Authority, to explore a model that could be used to redevelop the Comcast property. They liked what they saw, so the Housing Authority formed a partnership with Interfaith and Catholic Charities to redevelop the Comcast building.

Roth recalls becoming aware of the project last December and then reading a John Hubbuch column in Wednesday Journal, which, in effect, stated that Oak Park policy makers would talk the issue to death and would find some technical way to stop it.

"My goodness," Roth thought, "he's probably right." Roth resolved then and there to get more involved and not let the Comcast proposal fail for want of support and accurate information.

An informal group of about 18 local United Power leaders developed a strategy at the beginning of 2011, for coordinating with member institutions in this area and allies like Oak Park Temple and First United Church. The strategy to influence first the Oak Park Plan Commission and then the board of trustees to approve the proposal, according to Schwarber, included personal testimonies, signed post cards, an email campaign and a meeting at Ascension School where 186 United Power members and friends presented their argument to the four trustee candidates who showed up.

Bob Haisman, a First United member who "can see Comcast from my front porch," said the strategy was "positive, positive, positive." The six sessions with the plan commission and the two with the village trustees was "to make sure the decision makers knew there were reasonable people in support of affordable housing with rational and well thought out reasons [and] making sure there was a counter to misinformation, fear and conspiracy speculations.

"UP's supporters," Haisman added, "helped change the symbolic face of Comcast from scary, non-middle class strangers prone to inappropriate behavior if not outright crime to hard-working people with jobs who need a hand up and a chance."

Linda Hill lives in the neighborhood and admits to being initially "on the fence" about the redevelopment. That is, until she was able to tour an Interfaith development in the city. "Everything about the buildings, people, atmosphere and support services was top-notch," she said. "I think United Power made a big difference. United Power's efforts educated and encouraged supporters to work together and speak with a strong voice about what our community stands for."

Roth is attracted to United Power because "I value and give credit to United Power's focus on relationship building. As important as our values are, what really motivates me is building a relationship with the folks who will benefit."

One example of the power of relationships has been the participation of the Progress Center for Independent Living, whose clientele is suburban Cook County residents with disabilities. The Forest Park non-profit influenced United Power to add the words accessible and integrated to affordable in the project's proposal. Nancy Leonard, a Good Shepherd Church member who was involved in the Comcast campaign, said, "A new member of UPAJ, the Progress Center, widened the prospective tenant population to include persons with disabilities who are currently unable to afford to live independently due to income and the need for accessibility."

Roth gave credit to both the plan commission and to the village board for holding up their end of "the relationship." He acknowledged that the commission and the board put in a lot time on the issue and provided feedback that clarified elements of the plan and even improving it.

This is an example of how UPAJ has evolved away from tactics used by the godfather of community organizing in Chicago, Saul Alinsky, whose fundamental strategy was to unite the diverse elements in a coalition by helping them identify a common enemy. Totsch said UPAJ now talks about having "a common target," not a common enemy. Roth said the testimony offered by UPAJ members and friends was "totally respectful of the opposition."

Roth said this style of community organizing attracts religious groups to participate, and in turn the predominance of faith communities in United Power's membership encourages the style that attracted them in the first place.

"I think religion is a very important factor in United Power," he said. "My involvement in the organization comes through my church membership. I see the same motivation in my friends and colleagues at Ascension, Euclid Avenue Methodist, First United and Oak Park Temple. Many member organizations of United Power are non-religious, but its roots and its majority have definitely come out of faith-based groups."

Before anyone in United Power chalks the May 23rd vote to approve the Comcast project as a win, Roth cautioned, "My common sense tells me that all the steps along the way are going to require a supportive community. There are a lot of ways potentially to undermine a project as you move forward."

Trustee Bob Tucker added, "Those who testified or wrote emails and identified themselves as members of United Power provided some compelling — and at times touching — testimony, providing excellent examples of potential residents who might live at the development. They also presented comments from a broad policy perspective that should be useful as the village board continues to explore the issues of affordable and accessible housing in Oak Park."

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What's Wrong with Oak Park: See Photo from Oak Park  

Posted: August 20th, 2011 7:14 AM

Thanks for publishing an actual photo of what is wrong with Oak Park -- well-meaning people charged up on an issue that they feel passionately about, but obsessively pursuing a misguided goal, rather than actually dealing with solutions to the larger problem. After they get done patting themselves on the back for "saving the world" and "making Oak Park more diverse", perhaps they can focus their energy and passion on something that will actually make a difference and not just be symbolic

Marcia Ashton from Oak Park  

Posted: August 15th, 2011 10:49 AM

Thank you for bringing the story of United Power for Action and Justice to the community. This is an exceptional grass roots organization that invites people to connect on issues of common interest and develop reasoned action that brings results that benefit the common good. The Comcast redevelopment project is a positive step for Oak Park that builds on the traditions of justice and adds to our sense of respect for all people.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: August 12th, 2011 11:55 AM

Epic, you are one quarter of the year. He could see a glimpse of the building during the winter when there are no leaves on the trees. Grove trees are large and dense.

epic lulz  

Posted: August 12th, 2011 12:15 AM

If you can't see a distance of two blocks, I feel sorry for you. I can see the Sears Tower from the Comcast building, and my eyes are no longer their youthful 20/20.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: August 11th, 2011 11:40 PM

Never get sucked into the belief that because it is religious hyperbole and deceit are not present. At a Plan Commission Meeting, the Christian Lobby brought about twenty seriously disabled people to influence the commissioners. The leaders knew that none of those disabled people would be eligible for the Madison Housing. The Madison is not designed and never was planned for the seriously disabled. The Lord works in strange ways--some with of the ways have questionable human ethics.

eyesight from oak park  

Posted: August 11th, 2011 10:22 PM

Bob Haisman sure must have good eyesight since he lives 2 blocks south of Madison. Hardly likely to be impacted by the bldg. even if he thinks he can see it from his porch.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 8:20 PM

Silly, yes my viewpoint may be biased, but I am not sure what that has to do with my reply to Epic

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 6:45 PM

Let me clarify (for those I suspect are intentionally obtuse). If an Interfaith dev. Goes in, I do not wish it to fail. I do not want anyone to live in a failed housing project. Plus wishing that would make me a moron as it would certainly hit my property value and make the neighborhood less safe for my children. If the funding falls through ground won't be broken and OP would need to go back to the drawing board and hopefully come up with a well thought out strategy for affordable housing .


Posted: August 10th, 2011 5:34 PM

You may have a biased view, considering you are blood. She wishes for failure. (similar to Republicans)

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 5:06 PM

Epic -- there is no question in my mind that Patricia O'Shea has the intellect and talent to be a congressperson, but I am certain that she would never be a Republican congressperson. I am not sure how or why you suggested she is a Republican. Was it her posts? Or are you trying to improve the Republican talent level?

Do Gooder Wanna Be from Oak Parkland  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 4:02 PM

When no one asked, Oak Park do gooders changed Austin back to the 60's, once again, making it a safe neighborhood for families to raise their children and attend Austin High School.

Come On from Oak Park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 3:57 PM

The building still has a for sale sign on it. Maybe the building is still for sale? Jim Coughlin, you would be great to start taking collection each day to hand out to the pan handlers.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 3:20 PM

Need I remind that there is no guarantee who will live in the building. Oak Park signed off on a preference that Interfaith cannot guarantee because the decision lies with the funders, not with Interfaith or Oak Park.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 2:41 PM

And who is going to pay for the additional kids flowing into the school district? Oh, right. The people that will be paying property tax in this building. Can you say "disaster"?


Posted: August 10th, 2011 2:38 PM

Jim, She was disabled. There is more disabled housing in OP than affordable housing. There is a difference. I think the Comcast project will allow for disabled as well.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 2:21 PM

WG- I think you might feel differently about the need for affordable and accessible housing if you had heard that young lady address the Village Board. She spoke of the difficulties she and many other young residents like her are encountering and their desire to stay in Oak Park and live independently. We can do this for her and should!


Posted: August 10th, 2011 2:15 PM

Bars not housing? Maybe Micro Brewery sounds more PC.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 11:27 AM

Trust me Epic. My ability to influence this is nil. If only I could make things happen by wishing...

WhiteGuilt from Oak Park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 11:18 AM

Jim Coughlin, "And still we fight the good fight for affordable housing in Oak Park." Why does Oak Park feel they need to make affordable housing? Oak Park is expensive to live in, period!! Why is this project directed towards African-American people? Maybe they can find a token White to live there. Why is just one Black man in the picture? The group can bring their justice to Austin so it's safe to live in for everyone.

Selfish Fish  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 9:00 AM

Let me get this straight. This small group of people are taking credit for passing a project that will cost the government millions of dollars to give a few people the chance to live in oak park. The project is not even built yet, so why are they patting themselves on the back. In a time when goverment spending is out of control, money like this would be better served for towns, cities, states that actually need help, not to just have your daughter live in your town. Selfish and ignorant.

epic lulz  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 1:36 AM

I applaud Patricia's intransigence and her insistence on making sure that the project fails. I foresee a successful career for her as a Republican member of the US House.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 1:03 AM

Jim, all the reasons I opposed this don't go away just because it passed. Nothing has changed. I'm headed to bed, but it's all laid out at www.madisonprojectinfo.com. I'm still hoping the funding falls through so the Village will be forced to have a more constructive and less lazy conversation about affordable housing.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 12:51 AM

Patricia, we know that the community must come together and be supportive for this project to be successful. I'm sure that those of us who were hoping that the development would address the needs of seniors and accessibility-challenged persons are willing to now do whatever it takes to make this work. Some call it a big risk for Oak Park and they might be proven right. But no one wants this to fail. It's in our best interests. And still we fight the good fight for affordable housing in Oak Park.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 12:39 AM

Actually I have one thing. I'm not super surprised to see an article showcasing board members working with this group. After all, the Village was working behind closed doors with Interfaith. Official documentation was released to Interfaith before the Board and public had access. Snow job on residents from beginning to end.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 12:22 AM

No comment.....Silly.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: August 10th, 2011 12:07 AM

Silly - my thought are focused on Trustee Bob Tucker "Those who testified or wrote emails and identified themselves as members of United Power provided some compelling %u2014 and at times touching %u2014 testimony, providing excellent examples of potential residents who might live at the development." Now that the board, plan commission, and the Christian Lobby knows the identity of target occupants, maybe it is time for the OP residents, HUD, and the Illinois Housing Authority to

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 9th, 2011 11:50 PM

Encouraging to read that Trustee Bob Tucker and the board plan to continue to seek solutions to the lack of affordable housing. We've learned that a significant number of Oak Park residents, especially young adults and seniors, have very few options. A recent grad of OP-RF spoke to the trustees and related how she and many others just wanted the opportunity to live independently. Accessibility and affordabilty were holding them back. Let's make sure to give them that chance.


Posted: August 9th, 2011 10:08 PM

What will O'Shea and Murtagh have to say about this ?

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