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Northwest Side Mixed-Income Apartments Offer Hope For Disabled Neighbors

By Alex Nitkin | March 20, 2017 8:49am | Updated on March 22, 2017 11:45am

Sandy Kleinhans with her cat, Dean Martin [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]

JEFFERSON PARK — Sandy Kleinhans is out of options.

Last year, a health scare abruptly ended Kleinhans' 36-year career as a bank teller and publishing assistant. Her doctor urged her long ago to go on disability leave, warning that a full-time job was a serious risk for someone whose condition makes showering and dressing a two-hour process every morning.

Born with a rare joint disorder that severely limits her movement, Kleinhans now spends most of her time at home, watching the world pass in front of her brick bungalow in the 5100 block of West Argyle Street with her tabby cat, Dean Martin. A $1,600 monthly disability check is enough to get by on, for now.

But it's not enough for the bank that owns the deed on her home. Threatening foreclosure, it rejected her request to modify the mortgage she's been paying for 19 years.

"I don't want to leave this neighborhood. My friends are here, my church is here," Kleinhans said. "How am I supposed to live in Jefferson Park for $1,000 a month when I'm already spending $500 on health care?"

Kleinhans got her answer last month, when neighbors knocked on her door and told her about a plan to build a complex with 80 affordable, wheelchair-accessible apartments in the heart of the neighborhood.

They held out a petition against the plan, and they asked her to sign.

Sandy Kleinhans' bungalow is targeted for foreclosure despite 19 years of mortgage payments. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]

One of about 2,800 people with disabilities living in Jefferson Park according to U.S. Census data, Kleinhan got happier about the proposal the more she read about it, she said.

Just 20 of the complex's hundred units would be rented at market rate, with another 20 to 30 reserved for low-income residents on the CHA's waiting list. The rest of the apartments would be reserved for tenants making between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area's median income, roughly $25,000 to $45,000 annually.

With up to 30 units designed exclusively for wheelchair users, operator Full Circle Communities said it would give preference to military veterans and people with disabilities for at least half of the apartments.

In the weeks since the proposal was unveiled, an intense backlash has been sparked by some neighbors, many of whom predict its low-income tenants will unleash a wave of crime in a relatively safe neighborhood.

At the Feb. 9 public meeting unveiling the proposal, neighbors packed the North Branch Community Church and heckled Full Circle Communities President Josh Wilmoth as he described a citywide housing affordability crisis.

When Wilmoth cited real estate data showing a 12 percent spike in Jefferson Park housing costs since 2010, the sanctuary erupted in cheers.

"Good! Keep it that way!" one man hollered from a back pew.

For many of those in the audience, most of them homeowners, housing affordability was an abstraction compared to the seven-story monolith they saw as a potential drag on their property values.

But the neighborhood is also home of more than 2,500 people living below the federal poverty line, with another 1,827 households earning $25,000 to $50,000 in 2015, according to the Census Bureau.

Jefferson Park resident Dan Romaine speaks out against the proposed apartments at a Feb. 9 meeting. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]

And as rents keep rising, data show many of those families are struggling to keep up. A 2010 survey by the Chicago Rehab Network found that about 42 percent of Jefferson Park's renters and 52 percent of its homeowners spent more than a third of their income on housing — and that was before the housing market recovery pushed costs even higher.

Meanwhile, the rent burden often iseven heavier on people with disabilities — even those who work full-time, like Cathleen O'Brien.

An organizer with the disability rights group Access Living, O'Brien would qualify for one of the subsidized apartments, she said. The activist called the proposal a rare glimmer of hope for people who otherwise may be forced to live in nursing homes or homeless shelters.

"The overlap between poverty and people with disabilities is huge, and it's astounding," O'Brien said. "A lot of us live on fixed incomes or are underemployed, so it's a horrendous uphill battle to find a home in a city where less than 1 percent of the housing stock is wheelchair-accessible."

Just as important as the complex's ramps and elevators, she added, would be its proximity to similarly accessible buses and trains at the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

"[The apartments] would be integrated; they would give residents transit options, and they would be truly affordable," O'Brien said. "So the fact that it's become such a hot-button issue just makes me really sad."

Debra and Jimmi Miller [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]

Debra and Jimmi

Opponents of the proposal have raised plenty of objections besides the space it sets aside for low-income tenants.

Some neighbors say the 100 apartments and 62 parking spaces would make life harder for drivers along Milwaukee Avenue, with the developer yet to commission a traffic study of the area. And neighborhood parents have warned against opening space for more families in a part of the city where schools already are severely overcrowded.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, some worried about the screening process for potential occupants.

"What ability do you have, if any, to prevent a renter from passing the screening process, and then bringing in every miscreant brother, uncle, cousin, son they have?" one woman asked. Many others thought the project was too big for the location and too close to the Kennedy Expy.

But those weren't the complaints that reached Debra Miller as she leaned on her walker outside the church that night, gripping a sign reading "Ask me about Housing Needs of Veterans." She'd joined a few dozen demonstrators in support of the apartment proposal, opposite more than a hundred rallying against it in 20-degree weather.

Walking away from the opposing protest camp, one woman paused when she saw Miller's sign.

"If you want to live in this neighborhood, why don't you try working a day in your life?" the woman said. "I've worked my whole life to be able to afford to live here. I don't know why you think you deserve it."

By the time Miller sputtered a response, the woman had swiveled around and stomped back toward her car.

If she had stayed, Miller might have told the woman that she got her first job at age 16, stocking books at a public library in Syracuse, N.Y. After she moved to Chicago, she spent more than 20 years working in a call center for a travel agency until 2007, when she was laid off.

Miller managed to find a new job, but she had to leave after a lung condition and diabetes symptoms made it impossible for her to get out of bed some mornings. Her husband Jimmi, a former cook in the U.S. Marine Corps, left his job as a department store manager so that he could take care of her full time.

The couple was evicted from their house in Albany Park after falling behind on their mortgage payments, leaving them homeless. They spent more than three years bouncing from shelter to shelter until they scored a CHA low-income housing voucher, allowing them to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Edgewater.

Now, Debra and Jimmi say they'll be vying for an apartment in the Full Circle Communities complex. And no matter what anyone else thinks, Debra thinks they deserve to live there, she said.

"I don't feel like I'm getting something for nothing here," Debra said. "I worked for over 30 years — I paid into Social Security and disability. I worked until I couldn't anymore."

Jimmi, meanwhile, is one of thousands of veterans in the city who would qualify to live in the complex, including about 1,000 who are estimated to be homeless. Jefferson Park already is home of 877 vets, including 127 who are disabled from injuries sustained in military service, according to Census data.

Having grown up in Belmont Cragin, Jimmi said he was excited at the prospect of moving back to the Northwest Side, but he was shocked by the backlash to the proposed building, with some neighbors even pooling together money for a legal challenge to stop it from being built.

"People have been talking like this is going to be the second coming of Cabrini-Green, and I don't understand who filled their heads with that stuff," Jimmi said. "We're not bad people. We're not going to bring the neighborhood down."

John Doran with his daughter, Sara, and his then-newborn granddaughter [Provided photo]


Eligibility for the subsidized apartments doesn't end with veterans and disabled people. It doesn't even end at Chicago's borders.

At 74, John Doran is a long way from needing to move anywhere resembling an assisted-living facility. But he's also growing weary of all the responsibilities that come with owning a house in Lincoln, Neb.

Now, he's looking for an apartment near his daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter, who live on Montrose Avenue in Portage Park. But the Social Security income and public employee pension he collects don't leave him with a lot of money for housing, he said.

"I know the area up there, and I like it a lot," Doran said of Jefferson Park. "It's got great public facilities, and it's close to transportation and a library. But in my present capacity, I'm not going to be able to afford a one-bedroom at $1,200 a month."

A subsidized apartment in the neighborhood might end up being his only real opportunity to live there, he said. And having worked for 24 years at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he likes the idea of living next to people with military backgrounds.

"Veterans have made themselves available to go and die for us, and we as a nation have an obligation to provide for them and their survivors," Doran said. "They deserve that kind of care, and they deserve good places to live."


Sandy Kleinhans brimmed with anticipation as she walked into a Ward Night meeting on Feb. 21, ready to tell her neighbors what the sudden prospect of an affordable and accessible home meant to her.

On her way out, she asked a couple of police officers to escort her to her car.

"I had no idea it would be so heated," she said of the meeting, which saw protesters chanting outside the building and opponents drowning out the program inside.

"I tried to tell my story, and I couldn't get a sentence out," Kleinhans said.

Not all the opponents of the plan shouted her down, she said. Some were sympathetic and told her she didn't represent the threat that they were warning about.

"They kept telling me 'If everyone who moved in was like you, we wouldn't have a problem,'" Kleinhans recalled. "And all I wanted to tell them was, 'How do you know me? How do you know I'm not a drug dealer? And what is it that makes you think everyone else would be?'"