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Brown: Senior housing operator tells residents it's time to go

Residents of Crowder Place, 3801 N. Pine Grove, and two other North Side apartment buildings slated for closing by Presbyterian Homes say they were often told by company management that could live there the rest of their lives. Mark Brown / Sun-Times

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Presbyterian Homes, which operates three subsidized apartment buildings for seniors on the North Side, has put the buildings up for sale and given notice to more than 100 residents that they must move.

The surprise decision has shocked the elderly tenants, many of whom told me they were assured when they moved in that they would be allowed to stay there for as long as they lived.

These are people like Janet (Skowronnek) McGilly, 82, a World War II German refugee who uses a walker and is going blind. Tears welled in her eyes as she told me the fear of losing her home has reopened psychological wounds from her childhood war experiences.

“I have lived in ditches. I have lived in houses where the water was frozen,” McGilly said. “This place was like a relief. It was a false relief.”

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I also met Johnnie Steward, who said he is a 91-year-old World War II veteran and “will be 100-years-old in October.”

Steward, who served as a cook in the Navy, moved in to a Presbyterian Homes apartment 17 years ago. He said he doesn’t think it’s fair that a veteran such as himself should be forced to look for new housing at his age (whatever that is.)

Presbyterian Homes, an Evanston-based non-profit that also owns more upscale “senior living communities” in the suburbs, says its charitable donations are no longer sufficient to meet the cost of subsidizing rents and keeping up with maintenance at its city properties.

Robert Werdan, the organization’s vice president of marketing and public relations, said Presbyterian Homes decided to “refocus” the $600,000 a year it was spending to fund operating deficits at those buildings on its core business — continuing care retirement communities in Evanston, Lake Forest and Arlington Heights. Residents of those facilities receive contractual agreements promising they will be allowed to stay if they outlive their assets.

At Presbyterian Homes’ city apartments, residents admit they have nothing in writing, just the verbal assurance of the organization’s prior management.

“You’ll have a home for the rest of your days on earth,” resident Margaret Lilek, 82, said she was told, variations of which I heard over and over.

The three affected buildings are Mulvey Place, 416 W. Barry; Crowder Place, 3801 N. Pine Grove; and Devon Place, 1950 W. Devon. Mulvey Place and Crowder Place are brick four-plus-ones with highly desirable locations in Lakeview.

Since learning about the planned closing from angry tenants three weeks ago, local aldermen and legislators have been working with city agencies to identify a nonprofit developer who could buy the buildings and keep them as affordable housing.

“We’re trying to get someone to preserve this so no one has to move,” said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz.

But officials warn that arranging such a deal could take time and worry that Presbyterian Homes is intent on forging ahead quickly with plans to sell the properties to a for-profit buyer and to oust the current tenants.

Werdan said the organization is “willing to hear what they have to offer,” but stressed: “We feel we’ve exhausted the not-for-profit alternative.”

As anybody who reads my column knows, this is a fight that has become all too common in recent years as the increasing popularity of city living has decimated affordable housing on the North Side.

What’s unusual here is that the perpetrator in this case isn’t some greedy slumlord but a faith-based, mission-driven organization with an admirable record of providing high quality, low-cost senior housing — without any government funding — for more than 20 years.

But residents say new management at Presbyterian Homes no longer sees them as part of its mission.

Presbyterian Homes has offered the tenants a better deal than is often the case when a building changes hands.

Residents were told they have until Nov. 1, 2016, to move and will continue to receive rent subsidies during that period. If they move sooner, they will be paid the unused rent subsidy in a lump sum, along with $1,500 for moving expenses.

But many of the 18 residents I met Friday told me that other subsidized apartment buildings have three- to five-year waiting lists.

A recent advertisement in The New York Times for Presbyterian Homes’ other retirement communities carried the organization’s motto: “Promises kept for more than 100 years.”

Just be sure to get it in writing.

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