The Grandmothers Raising Grandkids writing group at Family Focus. A city committee recommended receiving $3 million in ARPA funds to support building renovations there. Credit: Submitted photo

Evanston’s Housing and Community Development Committee unanimously recommended the City Council allocate $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for a renovation of the Family Focus building on Dewey Avenue in the Fifth Ward.

“I want to make this clear: Family Focus is the only social service hub in the Fifth Ward,” Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said at the Tuesday, June 21, evening meeting. “This is the place where it happens. If you want to make a difference in the Fifth Ward, in 8092 census tract, this is the way to make a direct impact.”

The committee also endorsed another $1 million in ARPA money for a program that would be a one-stop shop for affordable housing, designed to subsidize housing upgrades for landlords and tenants in high-need, low-income areas of the city.

Both proposals now head to the Council chambers for final approval. Thus far, the largest single use of ARPA funds approved by the Council was $3 million to support the renovation of the McGaw YMCA Men’s Residence.

If the Council approves the two expenditures totaling $4 million, Evanston will have about $500,000 left in ARPA funds specifically designated for “disparately impacted communities,” according to Housing and Grants Manager Sarah Flax.

Still, there are more than $5 million in ARPA funds in the economic development budget, Flax said, and there is flexibility in where that federal money can be spent. But all ARPA money must be budgeted by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

Pilot to test affordable housing shop

The one-stop affordable housing shop will fund a two-year pilot program that will offer landlords and tenants a single place where they can apply for subsidized housing maintenance, plan the maintenance work and get connected with a local contractor who can complete the housing upgrade or repair.

Three affordable housing design and retrofit organizations will staff and run the shop: the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Elevate, two Chicago-based nonprofits, and the Evanston Development Cooperative.

Representatives for the three organizations said at Tuesday’s meeting that the shop will help Evanston meet its climate resilience and racial equity goals.

But two small Evanston landlords who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, Carlis Sutton and Tina Paden, expressed hesitation about the program, arguing it could end up benefitting big developers instead of affordable housing landlords like themselves. Paden said she felt Evanston had already spent millions in ARPA funds on incomplete or not-fully-thought-out projects.

In response, Elevate representative Hank Love and Evanston Sustainability Coordinator Cara Pratt pointed out the city has been studying the viability of an affordable housing shop such as this for four years via a feasibility grant. But the research and planning effort did not get much public attention because of the pandemic, Pratt said.

“This program is not without a concrete operating model and business plan behind it,” Love said. “This is something Elevate has made successful in multiple markets. It is a very well-planned and thought-out business model of how to maximize the benefits to local landlords who want to preserve the affordability of their units for their community.”

‘The only social service hub in the Fifth Ward’

As for Family Focus, dozens of Evanston residents submitted written comments or spoke at Tuesday night supporting the renovation project. According to many of the speakers, including several who work or volunteer at Family Focus, the organization provides vital and affordable services for early childhood development, after-school activities and family advocacy.

However, they also said the building is in desperate need of immediate repairs. Many of the bathrooms and water fountains are dysfunctional, forcing kids and staff to go across the street to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center for clean drinking water, according to those who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Plus the ceiling has water damage and the staff can no longer use the auditorium for activities because chairs are falling apart, said Family Focus Evanston Program Manager JoAnn Avery.

“I come before you tonight not to beg, but to ask that you find it in your hearts to do right by our community,” said Robin Robinson, a longtime Evanstonian whose children and grandchildren have used the services that Family Focus provides. “If there ever was a building deserving of financial assistance and support, it is the Family Focus community center, hands down.”

The total cost to renovate the existing Family Focus facility is an estimated $12.4 million, according to Family Focus Chief Financial Officer Dottie Johnson. The organization plans to make up the rest of the costs with a capital campaign as well as public and private funding sources such as grants, she said.

If granted, the organization plans to start the first phase of its project this summer, focusing on repairs to bathrooms, water fountains, ceilings and other basic building infrastructure. After that, Family Focus hopes to develop designs for a more extensive interior redesign of the current space by this coming January, Johnson said.

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...