Editor’s note: Mayor Daniel Biss sent the following email message to Evanston residents on Thursday, before a Cook County judge on Friday barred the city council from considering a special use permit for the Margarita Inn at Monday’s meeting.
Dear community members,
At Monday evening’s City Council meeting, I expect there will be votes on whether to permit Connections for the Homeless to continue operating a shared housing program at the Margarita Inn on Oak Avenue for individuals experiencing homelessness. This has been a contentious and drawn-out debate, so I wanted to take this opportunity to contextualize the choice that Council will be facing, as well as to share my own views.
The early days of the pandemic brought with them a confluence of events: economic dislocation caused a rise in housing insecurity, while the public health emergency resulted in the shutting down of congregate living arrangements for the unhoused and for all intents and purposes closed hotels. As a result, hotels across the country, which otherwise would have sat empty, were put to use as safe, temporary non-congregate housing. The Margarita Inn was one of these.
Like so many necessary decisions in those scary times, this happened very quickly, without necessarily leaving time to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. After almost two years, though, Connections for the Homeless decided to buy the building and seek approval to continue providing services over the long term. In March of 2022, the City made the determination that Connections needed approval of a “special use” from City Council to continue its operations there. Monday’s meeting will include a vote on this special use, as well as a vote to create a license for this type of shared housing provider (the point being that the granting of a license gives the City stronger oversight).
Over the course of the past year, as Council has moved closer to taking a vote on this issue, it has become very polarizing. Proponents say that we have a homelessness crisis and that Evanston needs a facility like this to provide housing for those in need. Opponents counter that locating it in one of the densest neighborhoods in town, adjacent to the downtown business district, is inherently problematic. Proponents point out there isn’t an obviously workable alternate location elsewhere in our community. Opponents say that the operation of the Margarita Inn over these last two years has led to deteriorating quality of life in the neighborhood.
I’ve taken all the input on this issue seriously, knowing that it’s sincere and deeply felt. I’ve also done my best to help address some of the issues that have come up. For instance, the relationship between Connections for the Homeless and the Evanston Police Department was at one point frayed, creating a real roadblock to public safety. Since then, both entities have devoted a very significant amount of time and attention to opening channels of communication and improving collaboration, leaving us in a better position to properly respond to issues that might arise.
The same can be said of the Good Neighbor Agreement, which was carefully crafted by a coalition of neighbors, members of the downtown business community, Margarita Inn residents, and Connections staff over the last four months and signed yesterday by myself on behalf of the City of Evanston and Betty Bogg, CEO of Connections for the Homeless.
I think it’s fair to say that some of the opposition to this project is tied to a broader concern about the future of our downtown. While I share some of these concerns, I think it’s especially important to put them in context. Downtowns across the country (frankly, even around the world) are grappling with the question of what a healthy post-covid economic equilibrium will look like. Remote working has dramatically reduced office populations (and, with them, lunch, coffee, and retail customers). The labor market, emotional, and viral stressors have generated a massive mental health crisis compounded by severe economic insecurity. A downtown with fewer office workers and more people struggling with financial and mental health challenges is simply going to feel different.
When I raise these points, some people reply by comparing Evanston to Wilmette and Winnetka, whose downtowns don’t seem to have been affected by the same forces. Look, Wilmette and Winnetka are lovely places, but their situations are fundamentally different from ours. The pandemic didn’t cause them to lose many thousands of office workers (in fact, it caused their daytime population to grow by thousands). They’re barely served by the CTA, and they aren’t home to an elite university, and these fundamental distinctions bring with them unique opportunities and challenges and will inevitably make Evanston a more welcoming place for people living on the economic margin.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look to all communities, including those to our north, for good ideas. But it does mean that success for downtown Evanston has to be defined on our own terms, based upon our own circumstances, and it will look different than success for downtown Wilmette or downtown Winnetka. And we’re beginning to build a successful downtown Evanston. A successful downtown Evanston means a reopened movie theater and preparing to welcome Northlight back home. It means new restaurants opening, like Fonda and LeTour, and the Orrington Hotel coming back. It means campus activity restarting and UL moving in and bringing hundreds of jobs.
But most of all, a successful downtown Evanston is one that brings our community’s values to life. That means understanding that every unhoused or mentally ill person or panhandler on the street is first and foremost a human being in need, and establishing services that address that need in a humane and constructive way. Though this work is far from done, we are taking critical steps, both in the police department and with non-police responses, and by establishing a Living Room to provide services for individuals in mental health crises.
I believe we best live our values by supporting Connections for the Homeless in their application to continue providing services at the Margarita Inn. The homelessness crisis is here, and turning Connections away won’t change that — it will simply diminish our ability to address it in a compassionate and responsible way.
And so, with thanks to the hundreds of community members who’ve taken the time to weigh in on this issue, as well as to City staff and elected officials who have worked diligently on it, and to Connections for the Homeless that has been providing these essential services under such extraordinarily difficult conditions these last few years, I respectfully ask that Council approve these items so that we can continue to build an Evanston that is vibrant, thriving, and welcoming to all.
Mayor, City of Evanston
I worked for NU in the early to middle 80’s. I enjoyed my hour long lunch breaks in downtown Evanston, visited the Library frequently, often lunched at Burger King. Never could I have imagined that what I was enjoying was not only as good as it would ever be but in 40 years time would denigrate to all the problems that now exist. I’m glad I lived at the right time.