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Brown: Seniors ask to stay but prepare to move

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Twenty-one years ago amid a previous wave of North Side gentrification, Presbyterian Homes stepped in to provide a much-needed lifeline to senior citizens being displaced from their neighborhoods.

The non-profit senior housing operator bought the first of two apartment buildings in Lakeview, later adding a third in Rogers Park, and made them available to the elderly at deeply discounted rents.

The well-maintained buildings became a model of charity, operated entirely with private funding, and by all accounts, have been a godsend through the years to those who have found a home there.

That’s why it is so baffling to me and others that Presbyterian Homes appears to be in such a big hurry to not only chuck the mission and dump the residents but to throw away the goodwill the organization has earned until now.

I reported Sept. 5 on Presbyterian Homes’ plans to sell its three city buildings, displacing more than 100 residents in the process. Elderly individuals, many of whom say they had been promised they could live there the rest of their lives, were instead told they have a year to move.

OPINION

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The century-old organization, which has no connection to the Presbyterian Church, dropped a letter under residents’ doors last month announcing that charitable donations for the program were no longer enough to fund operating deficits and meet future maintenance needs.

While it’s understandable for Presbyterian Homes to choose to get out of the subsidized housing business, what is troubling to public officials and community advocates is that the group has shown little interest in selling the properties to other non-profits willing to keep the residents in place and continue the affordable housing mission.

Last week, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) joined residents to plead with Presbyterian Homes to slow down and negotiate in good faith with potential buyers who they say could pay full value for the buildings and still offer subsidized rents to the elderly tenants—with the help of government funding.

Presbyterian Homes is philosophically opposed to the use of government funding in its own work, which these days centers around more upscale senior living communities in Lake Forest, Evanston and Arlington Heights. Good for them.

But it’s hard to fathom why as a non-profit it would extend that philosophy to the next owner when it harms seniors.

The problem goes beyond those currently living at Mulvey Place, 416 W. Barry, Crowder Place, 3801 N. Pine Grove, and Devon Place, 1950 W. Devon.

Once those buildings are returned to market rate use, that’s a resource that won’t be available to the next generation of seniors looking for an affordable way to stay close to their North Side neighborhoods.

John Iwen, one of the first tenants at Mulvey Place, named for a former Presbyterian Homes executive, moved in shortly after the organization bought the brick four-plus-one in 1994.

“It’s been my extended family these many, many years,” said Iwen, now age 90 and living on Social Security.

Family is a good description of the Mulvey Place residents I met Saturday morning in front of the building as they held a yard sale to begin paring their belongings in anticipation of a move.

Almost all of them live alone, yet it was evident that they are used to looking out for — and putting up with — each other.

While younger neighbors picked over their treasures, residents told me how grateful they’d been for the opportunity to live there and in many cases how fearful they are of what the future now holds.

These are individuals who by generation and disposition aren’t the type to think the world owes them anything.

Just the same, they think they’re getting a raw deal. As they look for places within their budgets to move, it’s common to find waiting lists of three to five years.

Iwen remembers the problems he experienced finding a decent place to live before he landed here — and the comfort it brought him.

“After I moved here, I could relax. A lot of stress is taken off of you. Shelter is important,” Iwen said, unsure of where he will go next.

You’d think an organization devoted to housing seniors would have a greater appreciation of that.

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