Residents pressed church officials on other needs. "We have many old time seniors that have homes that need updating because they're not working anymore -- they're retired and can't afford to fix their homes ...," longtime resident Roberta Hudson, center, told officials. Photos by Bob Seidenberg

Leaders at Mount Pisgah Ministry Church ran into strong resident reaction at a Fifth Ward meeting Jan. 8 where they presented plans to redevelop the church’s property, as well as a long vacant lot at Church Street and Darrow Avenue, long viewed as an important piece in the area’s development.

Church leaders are proposing to replace their current storefront church at 1813-1815 Church St. with a new structure seating up to 400 at their current site, and on part of the vacant lot to the east currently owned by the City.

The church is proposing building a three-to-five story residential building on the rest of the vacant lot, tapping subsidies to keep the units affordable, said Auxiliary Pastor Erik Blakely in a presentation at the meeting, held at the church

With subsidies, rents would range from $500 to $800 for studios to $1,600 to $2,000 for two bedrooms, which would make up the bulk of the units.

“That’s 30% less than what the market is right now,” he told his audience.

But a number of residents raised concern about the proposed rent figures, when Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons chairing the meeting, opened the session for questions.

One attendee, Abigail Stone, with Connections for the Homeless, agreed Pastor Blakely might be right in saying the rent numbers were lower than some other places.

“However, there are people in this area that are still under extreme cost burden – meaning that they are paying a much higher percentage for their housing than they should,” she said. “Some are at 75%; I don’t know how they manage.”

As a consequence, people in those straits, “go to the food pantry – you don’t take your medicine… So what I’m saying is this cost, I’m not sure, is subsidized enough for people to really have the level of affordability that they need.”

Rev. Blakely emphasizes that the rent figures presented are the subsidized amounts, and stand well below “what the current market is – which is just right on the other side of the train track,” he said, referring to the closest residential development.

To a question on what class of people the project is trying to address, Rev. Blakely said church leaders see the project as affordable housing and have not come to a final decision on what the class or income will be.

“What we researched were the types of people we see walking up and down the street, the types of people we’ve had fellowship with over the years, and that have come [to the church] in wintertime and need help,” he said. “And these are the types of people I want to pay attention to.”

But other residents joined Ms. Stone, expressing concern about some of the proposed rents.

Carlis Sutton, a longtime resident, expressed concern about “a shift in your initiative,” was referring to the Mount Pisgah leaders’ early plan to make housing for longtime seniors in the area their focus.

“I was very excited about a place [offering] elderly daycare and affordable daycare with the gentrification that we’re going through,” he said. “We’re losing families, but the aging population is increasing.”

Roberta Hudson, another longtime resident, expressed concern about the project’s addressing the needs of young people as well as the elderly.

“We have many old-time seniors that have homes that need updating because they’re not working anymore – they’re retired and they can’t afford to fix their homes,” she said. “These are over 100-year-old homes in Evanston. They need updating, and no one is doing anything about it.”

Ald. Rue Simmons stressed that the church’s proposal is an early-stage proposal, noting that the Request for Proposal (RFP), inviting bidders, has not yet been released.

“We have a long road ahead of us,” she said, “but this is an opportunity to get an early look at a proposal from within our own community.”

To Mt. Pisgah’s credit, “they’ve invested a lot,” she said, referring to the presentation materials, which included engaging an architect, Suzuki & Kidd to design a mock-up of the project.

Moving forward, “the church will have to go through a competitive process,” she said.

In the church’s favor, “they are an Evanston organization that has for decades been committed to serving our community. And here is a first display of that,” she said of the night’s presentation “They didn’t have to open up the church’s doors and be vulnerable and share their project … but it was important to them that they were transparent and that they had the support of the community.”

She said an important piece of having someone like the church on board is local employment.

Unlike the $54 million Robert Crown project, she said, “I feel very confident that I will not have to come and yell at the pastor [about] hiring local whenever possible to construct the facilities. I know that Pastor [Clifford] Wilson and members will be looking to contract and employ from the community, and that is something that I have struggled with,” she said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.