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Brown: Presbyterian Homes residents take their case to court

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Having failed to respond to moral and political persuasion, the operators of three senior apartment buildings slated for closing will find themselves in court.

Serves them right.

On Friday, lawyer Matthew Piers filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Presbyterian Homes’ three facilities on the city’s North Side.


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As I’ve been telling you, Presbyterian Homes in August informed more than 100 residents of its rent-subsidized Neighborhood Homes program that it had decided to sell the buildings and that everyone would be required to move.

They did this despite having long told most of these same residents they would be allowed to remain in their apartments as long as they lived — or at least as long as they could live independently.

It seems Presbyterian Homes has tired of its charitable mission of providing subsidized rents to the elderly and saw an opportunity to sell its properties in the booming North Side real estate scene and plow the proceeds into its more upscale market-rate senior housing business in the suburbs.

Although it is organized as a nonprofit, Evanston-based Presbyterian Homes is a very prosperous nonprofit with a $100 million annual budget, millions of dollars of assets in the bank, and a chief executive officer, Todd Swortzel, who pulls down more than $500,000 a year in compensation.

The organization has no formal ties to the Presbyterian Church, which doesn’t prevent it from aiming its fundraising at generous church members. It receives no government funding.

I would have thought my fairly gentle prodding in two previous columns might have convinced Presbyterian Homes’ leaders to rethink the public relations problems inherent in pulling the rug out from under the very people they are pledged to help.

No such luck. Now, they will have to spend money on lawyers to defend their actions instead of spending it on their residents who deserve it.

The three affected buildings are Mulvey Place, 416 W. Barry; Crowder Place, 3801 N. Pine Grove; and Devon Place, 1950 W. Devon.

I’ve visited both Mulvey Place and Crowder Place, where I met with stunned residents who showed me what close-knit communities they had formed and told me how fearful they were of what now lies ahead.

“If I go homeless, will one of you let me use your shower once a week?” Stanley Rumage, 68, asked his neighbors at Mulvey Place.

He meant it, having been homeless.

“Seventy-one years, and it’s come to this,” 71-year-old Susan McCormick told me. “If anyone lives long enough, they’ll die penniless in this country.”

As I get older, I can see the truth in that bleak assessment.

Not everybody gets to the end of their work career with a nice pension or enough savings to get them through to the end. Not everybody has family to help.

For the elderly who find themselves in that situation, there is precious little affordable housing to be found, which is why what little there is should be preserved.

The big problem in this instance is that Presbyterian Homes has been unwilling to seriously entertain the option of selling to other non-profit housing developers who would keep the residents in place.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who has been trying to help the residents, said Presbyterian Homes showed some softening on that point in a Thursday meeting with elected officials convened by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.

Piers said the court action will proceed independently of any efforts by political leaders because Presbyterian Homes needs to recognize that its written and oral commitments to residents amount to legally enforceable “lifetime leases.”

“These residents have the legal right to remain,” Piers said. “This is not an option. This is a legal obligation.”

Presbyterian Homes officials did not respond. They’ve said in the past they have no such obligation.

Margaret Lilek, an 82-year-old Crowder Place resident, is a name plaintiff in the lawsuit and spoke at the news conference announcing it. She used to work for Presbyterian Homes under different management.

“I’m so disappointed in how Presbyterian Homes has taken another path and brushed us aside like we were nothing,” Lilek said. “They should be ashamed.”

Ashamed or not, they should honor their commitment.

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