The seniors who live at Levy House on the city’s far north edge would be the first to tell you how good they’ve got it.
Comfortable apartments at affordable rents in an ideal lakefront location, steps from the beach and close to public transportation, plus best of all, a supportive, family-like living atmosphere.
Many residents say they expected to live there until they died.
That’s what makes it all the more frightening to them that the non-profit owner of their eight-story, 56-unit building at 1221 W. Sherwin may be on the verge of selling to a for-profit developer who could legally force them out.
“I am a Holocaust survivor. They promised to me I could stay in the building. They promised I would never be sent to a nursing home,” said an anguished 94-year-old Jeanne Golestaneh, who has lived at Levy House for 22 years and credits her neighbors in the building with helping care for her after two heart attacks. “I am not capable of taking care of myself.”
Sharing their concern is Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who said he first learned in August that the building was for sale and immediately tried to find affordable housing developers who could keep it as senior housing.
When Moore was informed earlier this month that the owner, CJE SeniorLife, an affiliate of the Council for Jewish Elderly, was preparing to sell to BJB Properties –– a developer that caters to a younger, more upscale crowd –– Moore said he asked the organization to delay taking action until he arranged for a non-profit developer to submit its own competitive bid.
Moore contends CJE SeniorLife then used that competing bid to leverage a higher offer from BJB.
“I think they’re losing sight of their mission,” Moore told me.
Thomas Lockwood, chief financial officer for CJE SeniorLife, suggested the alarm is premature, saying there is “no signed contract” for the building’s sale and denying any attempt to leverage a better offer.
Lockwood said the alderman “gives us a little less credit than we’re probably due.”
“We’re not throwing our mission out the window,” he said. “The residents are not being put out on the street.”
Lockwood said any new buyer will be required to maintain as affordable the 20 apartments in the building that receive government rental subsidies, but would not discuss the length of that commitment.
He insisted the other 36 apartments all rent for “market rate” already and would remain so, but admitted his organization currently keeps those rents artificially low as well.
“We are a business. The building does not pay for itself. We subsidize it operations,” Lockwood said.
Also taking up the residents’ cause is the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, an aggressive advocacy organization that has clashed with Moore in the past over whether he was doing enough to preserve affordable housing.
Organizers arranged for me to meet this week with a group of Levy House residents who say they were blindsided by word of the impending sale.
Listening to them brought an immediate sense of déjà vu because of the similarity of their situation with the residents of Presbyterian Homes, which put three North Side senior apartment buildings on the market in 2015 with no protections for the residents.
Presbyterian Homes residents also thought they had found a family-like environment where they could live out their lives, but learned that even charity-based non-profits prefer to put their money into profitable undertakings.
Two of those Presbyterian Homes veterans came to the Levy House meeting to lend their support.
Levy House residents spoke glowingly about living there. Neighbors routinely take each other to doctor’s appointments, they said, while CJE sends a bus once a week to take them grocery shopping. Plus the building is pet-friendly.
“I was homeless before I came here,” said Gail Rover, 66, who brought her dog, William, to the meeting.
Rover said living in Levy House the past four years has given her the sense of safety and belonging that she never knew she would have again.
James Sewall, 69, previously lived nearby at Astor House, another apartment building where the poor and elderly were cast out.
Sewall said the new owners gave residents 30 days to leave, putting an eviction on his credit record that made it almost impossible for him to find a new home until the previous manager of Levy House “took pity on me.”
Beverly Alejandro voiced a common refrain.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said.
In the end, the Presbyterian Homes properties were saved as affordable senior housing when the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to purchase them, but only after residents put up a fight.
Levy House residents say they will fight as well.