JEFFERSON PARK — A key city panel gave the green-light Thursday to a controversial development that offers affordable housing to veterans and senior citizens, a project that’s sparked a furor on the Northwest Side.
The city’s Plan Commission gave the thumbs up to the planned development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. after impassioned feedback, including from seniors desperate for affordable options on the Northwest Side.
It still needs approval by the full City Council.
Opponents have railed against the size of the five-story, 75-unit complex and its potential impact on already crowded schools and gridlocked traffic in the area.
But it’s also exposed a divide over affordable housing on the Far Northwest Side, prompting accusations of racism and corruption. Opponents first argued the development had potential to bring violent crime into one of the city’s safest neighborhoods.
Ald. John Arena (45th) has repeatedly said the project is needed in an area where rents are rising.
“The reaction to this proposal showed me a side of Jefferson Park I wasn’t proud of and a bit shocking to me,” Arena said, noting that people protesting the project carried signs with “despicable” things painted on it outside his office.
The development, which is next to the Jefferson Park Transit Center, would allow residents to walk to the CTA Blue Line and several bus routes.
It’s location would make it a perfect landing spot for people like Joel and Arlene Baum, who live just blocks from the development’s proposed site. After learning they will be evicted from their current apartment, the 80-year-olds, married for 45 years, traveled to City Hall Thursday to argue for the project.
Joel Baum served in the military during the 1960s and could qualify for one of the units at the proposed development set to be reserved for military veterans and people with disabilities.
To show his support of the project, he made the difficult trek to City Hall using a wheelchair to speak to city’s Plan Commission.
“Where are we going to go?” Baum told the commission on Thursday. “I need a place to call my own. I think about the people living under bridges. I don’t want to join them.”
Nearly a dozen members of the group Neighbors for Affordable Housing also urged the commissioners to advance the project, saying it would reduce income inequality in Jefferson Park and make the neighborhood more welcoming to those with disabilities and struggling to pay rent.
Former Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association President Bob Bank, one of the project’s most vehement opponents, has filed to challenge Arena in the 2019 aldermanic election.
Bank said it was “a new low” for the City Council to allow charges of racism to be aired against opponents of the project. The project should be rejected because it is “out of character for the neighborhood” and “change the character of the neighborhood.”
Bank said he doubted any veterans would ever live in the project, and said Arena and its supporters were “using veterans to soften the opposition for this CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] cash cow.”
The Chicago Housing Authority is not involved in the project.
Just before the vote, Bank called out from the gallery and was admonished by the chairman of the commission for speaking out of turn.
As Bank ran out of time to address the Plan Commision, he yelled to commissioners: “Don’t be a sucker.”
Ultimately, the Plan Commission gave the project the green light. Now the proposal needs the approval of both the City Council’s Zoning Committee as well as the full council.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) commended Arena for working to bring affordable housing to a part of the city not known as an area where people struggle to pay rent.
“Congratulations on doing what is right, rather than what is popular,” Burnett said to Arena.
Originally set to be 100 units, the project is now 75 units, with fewer three-bedroom apartments to reduce the number of new students sent to Jefferson Park schools. Fifteen apartments will be set aside for veterans, while former members of the military will also have the first chance to rent the other apartments.
Forty-five apartments will be set aside for Chicago residents making no more than 60 percent of the area median income, which is $47,400 for a family of four. Fifteen apartments will be set aside for those who earn no more than 30 percent of the area median income, which is $24,600 for a family of four, while 15 apartments will be rented at the market rate.
“What we really need are twin towers, because what they’ve set aside just aren’t going to be near enough to meet the need,” Baum told Block Club. “We’re examples of that. I think we’re deserving of a unit, but I’m not sure we’re going to get one because there are other people out there applying and they have needs too.”
In 2017, the City Council approved construction of a five-story 27,000-square-foot storage warehouse as a companion to the apartments on the same property.
In May, the project from Full Circle Communities failed to win state tax credits that it needs to move forward because a necessary zoning change had not yet been approved by city officials.
“We don’t drink. We don’t smoke. We play bridge. We don’t gamble. We’re boring people,” Joel Baum said. “I think we have at least 20 years left, but we’re shooting for 100. But the stress from this housing situation is so out of proportion to how we live our lives.”
On Wednesday, the day before going to City Hall, Arlene Baum sat at her kitchen table reading a newspaper. Her husband was in his bed in the front room listening to classical music on a stereo while figuring out which book on tape he wants to listen to next.
They’re facing eviction from their Northwest Side apartment after a new person bought their building and told them they needed to move out.
Joel grew up on the city’s North Side (he says he could hear the crack of the bat from Wrigley Field as a kid) and Arlene grew up on the city’s South Side. They met while on a church-sponsored trip to Green Lake, Wisc., back in 1973.
At the time he had finished his stint in the Air Force and was working as a teacher. She was a graphic designer.
They would go on to get married and build a life together, raising a daughter who now lives in New York and works as a librarian.
Now as retired senior citizens with disabilities — Arlene Baum is deaf and her husband is bedridden — they continue to take care of each other.
But the notice they received from their landlord last month has them worried about their future.
On Aug. 27, the couple received a letter from their new landlord asking them to leave the apartment at 5128 N. Lovejoy Ave. by Sept. 30.
“This eviction notice is very troubling,” Arlene Baum said. “It takes me awhile to accommodate myself and be comfortable in a place.”
For the past five years they’ve lived in the garden apartment in a Jefferson Park three-flat, paying about $750 per month. They’re on a fixed income and afraid they won’t find another apartment like the one they currently have they can afford.
This uncertainty has been weighing heavily on the couple, and one of their greatest fears is the possibility they’ll be separated to different facilities that would help care for them.
Arlene Baum said their current apartment’s proximity to bus stops, grocery stores and other amenities, like an in-unit washer and dryer, are perfect for their current situation. That’s why the proposed development, which would only be a few blocks away, is so attractive to them.
“The neighborhood itself is so convenient. It’s not stressful and we don’t have to worry about getting food to the house,” she said.
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