Members of the Land Use Commission, in a meeting spanning more than four hours with more than 150 people in attendance, passed a motion by a 5-3 vote recommending a special use permit for the Margarita Inn to serve as a residence for the homeless.

Sixty-five people – many wearing shirts in support of Connections for the Homeless’ use of the Margarita Inn – filled the council chambers. Another 100 packed two auxiliary rooms. Credit: Richard Cahan

The Margarita Inn, formerly a boutique hotel at 1566 Oak Ave., was issued an emergency use permit in 2020 to become a homeless shelter (technically a rooming house by city standards) amid the pandemic. Connections for the Homeless, the nonprofit organization that runs the facility, has since decided to buy the property and filed in September for a special use permit to continue operations.

There have been a series of public discussions as this issue has moved through various city committees, a town hall meeting and more than a dozen “listening sessions” set up by Connections for the Homeless, prior to last night’s meeting before the Land Use Commission, which dedicated its whole meeting to the issue.

It is expected there will be more, as Land Use is only one of several committees the permit must go through before advancing to the City Council, which will make the final decision. That is likely to come in January or February.

Commissioners Matt Rodgers, Max Puchtel, Jeanne Lindwall, Kiril Mirintchev and Myrna Arevalo voted yes, while commissioners Brian Johnson, George Halik and Kristine Westerberg voted no.

Nuisance complaints

“Of course, I’m pleased,” said Betty Bogg, chief executive officer of Connections for the Homeless, as she was hugged by a supporter after the Land Use Commission vote. “We are very relieved.” Credit: Richard Cahan

The issues at the Margarita Inn has polarized residents, which was reflected in Wednesday’s testimony. The facility, with a maximum capacity for 63 residents, uses a “housing first” model.

The model is an internationally recognized best practice in breaking the cycle of longterm homelessness, but it is not without controversy.

The model means that before addressing any other issues in a person’s life, including sobriety, the priority must be to get the person off the streets and into a stable situation with security and a “key” in hand. After that, the model uses follow-up steps to deal with the complexity of other issues that led to the person’s situation, whether that is substance abuse, mental health issues, job loss or a combination of those issues.

Neighbors have complained of panhandling in the vicinity of the Margarita Inn and worries about declining property values as well as lack of attention to their complaints. Richard Eddington, who until last month served as the city’s police chief, has also expressed concerns and repeated those on Wednesday.

Toni Rey leads building members from 1020 Grove St. in support of the nearby Magarita Inn. “We’re here, very united, to say we consider the Margarita good neighbors.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Yet some residents who live there have said the system, which prioritized their safety first, has allowed them to sort out their longterm problems.

To deal with neighborhood worries, Connections took several steps beyond what was required by the city, including trying to put together a Good Neighbor Agreement, which was supposed to bring supporters and skeptics from the the shelter, local businesses and organizations, homeowners and residences to work out standards and practices together.

“We want to set a high bar of expectations that allows the city to have oversight and authority,” Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said prior to the meeting.

But all of the issues were back out on the table Wednesday night.

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Commissioners expressed several concerns about the nuisance complaints, the attempted Good Neighbor Agreement and taxes.

About 86% of the shelter’s residents are Evanston residents, with the nonprofit having a 57% success rate in helping people find permanent housing, said George Kisiel, a land planner hired by Connections who spoke at the meeting.

Commissioner Halik pressed the nonprofit’s leadership on policies around nuisance complaints and substance use.

“We operate under harm reduction” principles, said Betty Bogg, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. “If it’s legal outside, it’s legal inside.”

Connections has policies around substance use, including a three-strike rule, said Tina White, director of community programs at Connections.

Analysis over a two-year period by the city found that the site was not a public nuisance, according to Alexandra Ruggie, assistant city attorney, who spoke last night.

Good Neighbor Agreement

Creating the Good Neighbor Agreement, not required but considered a key step for the special permit process, has not yet been successful. The neighborhood groups forming the agreement have not been able to bring opponents to the table to address concerns.

“I cannot remember a November that has been this cold,” said Chef Q Ibraheem. “I’m sitting over here, and my hands and legs are freezing. Yet we are considering putting human beings on the street right now.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Therefore, the city decided it will change the agreement to a declaration, giving the city more enforcement power. The city has also discussed modifying the shelter ordinance as well to put more teeth in its ability to oversee shelters.

But no decisions on the agreement were reached Wednesday and after much debate on the matter, commissioners issued a deadline for Connections to complete the suggested Good Neighbor Declaration prior to a permit issuance.

The Good Neighbor Agreement is important to “develop the trust we need to have,” council member Nieuwsma said. With City Hall ultimately voting on the matter, council members are unable to participate in the Land Use Commission meetings, though they can attend.

Tax question

Commissioners also raised concerns around how the acquisition would affect the nonprofit’s tax status. Yet many nonprofits do own property.

Another issue addressed was the city’s lien in 2020 against the hotel over unpaid property and parking taxes.

According to Donna J. Pugh, an attorney representing Connections, the nonprofit would still owe the back taxes to the City of Evanston and the two school districts that the hotel accumulated during the pandemic under the deed restriction. She estimated the figure would be around 75% of the tax bill. (The 2021 tax bill was about $220,000, according to Melissa Klotz, the city’s zoning administrator.)

Public pros and cons

Housing advocates and some community members expressed strong support for the nonprofit’s acquisition of Margarita Inn, stressing the need to tackle homelessness.

“Doing nothing when we can do something is immoral,” said Rev. Grace Imathiu from the First United Methodist Church, stressing the vote as a chance to make a “permanent dent” on the “disease” of homelessness. Others echoed the sentiment.

The commission’s decision on the permit is a “moral, ethical, and spiritual” question, said Rev. Michael Woolf from the Lake Street Church of Evanston. He added that the city has a duty to help local homeless people, Evanston’s most vulnerable population.

“Justice begins with housing, and the Margarita Inn makes Evanston a more just community,” said Patrick Keenan-Devlin, executive director of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy in Evanston. He added that 14 of the center’s clients helped by Connections have now been moved to other housing.

Others, however, remained skeptical, particularly on the data regarding success that Corrections presented.

“I think the commission is entitled to see the proof of those numbers,” Lawrence Starkman, a property owner in the neighborhood, said, stressing the need for accountability and compliance with standards.

Manan Bhavnani

Prior to joining the RoundTable, Manan Bhavnani covered business and technology for the International Business Times, with a focus on mergers, earnings and governance. He is a double Medill graduate, with...

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  1. There’s no better way to degrade a neighborhood than to open a “low – barrier” homeless shelter, which is what the Margarita Inn – aka “Albany Care II” – is. By approving this very poorly – managed facility, Evanston city leadership is showing that they have deliberately set out to destroy what was once a nice quality of life for their citizens. That loud sucking sound you hear is your citizenry – and thus your tax base – fleeing for more adeptly governed and safer places. The great comic strip character Pogo made it clear when he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us…”

    1. Have you ever been homeless Gregory? Try it out. Living on benches or in the dirt. Have a heart. BTW, 99 percent of your panhandlers and troublemakers out there are not coming from the Margarita. Most of them have homes to go back to.

      1. As a matter of fact, Mr. Todd, I have. I’ve subsequently built a career of assisting those in need, it’s my way to “pay it forward” to those selfless folks who were there for me when I was floundering around in life; I’d be dead without them. I’ve worked at two homeless services agencies, Streetwise (Chicago), and Connections for the Homeless here in Evanston; I’m a passionate advocate for returning citizens (those who have been imprisoned), refugees/immigrants, and especially the homeless. Here is my LinkedIn account, you can see for yourself:

        https://www.linkedin.com/in/gregory-morrow-wioa-careers/

        My beef with the Margarita Inn is simply that it is so very ineptly managed, thus an unsafe environment for guests, staff, and neighbors. Managed competently, the Margarita Inn could be a top – class “gold standard” of homeless services of which Evanston could be so very proud. I’d avidly support it – by volunteering and donating – as I’ve done with Lincoln Park Community Shelter in Chicago, where I was a guest years ago. Unfortunately, IMO Connections has chosen not to engage in “best practices” in their administration of the facility – it is heartbreaking to me, as our homeless citizens and Evanston deserve so much better than what the Margarita is now delivering.

        My experiences of working at the Margarita Inn are a matter of public record. Here you can find my letter to the Evanston LUC and others detailing my objections to granting Connections for the Homeless licensure to further operate the facility; it is in “Additional Public Comment – 1566 Oak Avenue” for the 11/30/2022 Land Use Commission “Special Meeting”:

        https://www.cityofevanston.org/government/boards-commissions-and-committees/land-use-commission

        Respectfully,

        Gregory Morrow – 4th Ward Evanston resident