One of the highest-profile proposals in Evanston’s recent history is set to resurface again Monday, as the City Council considers a special use application for the Margarita Inn shelter.

Local nonprofit Connections for the Homeless seeks to permanently operate the facility at 1566 Oak Ave. as a rooming house for people experiencing homelessness. Connections has been the building’s only tenant for three years.

The Margarita Inn began operating as a homeless shelter during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Evan Girard

After its introduction at Monday night’s meeting, Connection’s application for an allowed special use could get a final City Council vote as early as May 22.

Here’s a brief history of the contentious Margarita Inn shelter debate.

From women’s residence to pandemic shelter

Prior to the pandemic, the inn had a long history as a boarding house for working women, a rooming house for short-term residents and most recently, a European-style hotel.

An enlargement from the cover of the building fund pamphlet for a new Margarita Club, 1926. Credit: Evanston History Center

In 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, owner Michael Pure allowed Connections for the Homeless to use the hotel as an emergency shelter for Evanstonians who lacked housing.

The agency has continued to operate the inn as a shelter under this emergency status. In March 2022, Connections proposed a three-part plan for making the inn a permanent shelter. However, the city Land Use Commission decided that the inn’s rooming house permit from 1974 had expired and required a new application.

The special use application, which Connections first submitted in September 2022, is one part of the agency’s plan. To operate the shelter under a “rooming house” designation, Connections also needs other city approvals and must ratify a Good Neighbor Agreement. 

Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections for the Homeless, and Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss show the Good Neighbor Agreement after they both signed it.
Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections for the Homeless, and Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss show the Good Neighbor Agreement after they both signed it on Feb. 8. Credit: Richard Cahan

Mayor Daniel Biss and Connections Executive Director Betty Bogg ceremonially signed a draft Good Neighbor Agreement in February 2023, while an official vote by City Council won’t happen until the special use permit and shared housing license are approved. (In April 2023, a group of Oak Street neighbors published an alternative Good Neighbor Agreement proposing additional requirements and restrictions.)

Court intervenes in process

The special use application was first heard by the city’s Land Use Commission in November 2022, which gave it a positive recommendation on a 5-3 vote. However, before City Council could hold a final vote, a Cook County judge blocked the vote, finding that the commission had failed to grant a continuance to allow a neighboring property owner to testify against the proposal.

That property owner was Cameel Halim, who owns the Halim Time & Glass Museum at 1560 Oak Ave., one door south of the Margarita Inn. (Halim also owns the King Home building across the street at 1555 Oak Ave., which he is proposing to operate as an apartment hotel under the Hawthorn Suites name, a Wyndham brand.)

Cameel Halim testifies before the Land Use Commission on April 26. Credit: Matt Simonette

The Land Use Commission held a second hearing last month to accommodate Halim’s testimony. This time, the commission passed it to City Council without a recommendation, voting 3-3 with three members absent.

Lawsuit seeks injunctions, damages

Shortly before the second commission meeting, Margarita Inn owner Pure was sued by Lawrence Starkman, owner of the apartment building at 1570 Oak Ave., just north of the inn. The lawsuit alleges that Connections’ operation of a shelter at the inn constitutes a private and public nuisance, and that Starkman has suffered a loss of tenants and income as a result.

The Margarita European Inn at 1566 Oak Ave. The Oak Ridge Apartment Building, 1570 Oak Ave., is just visible at right. The edge of the Halim Time & Glass Museum, 1560 Oak Ave., can be seen at left. Credit: Evan Girard

Starkman seeks financial damages and injunctions against the operation of a shelter and Connections being a tenant of the Margarita Inn. The case’s first hearing is scheduled for Aug. 22.

In emailed statements to the RoundTable, the city’s Law Department said any such injunctions could not affect the proposed special use permit for a rooming house, but could affect Connections’ role as the operator of said rooming house.

Public meetings, letters to editor

Numerous community meetings have been held throughout this process, both as open forums and as meetings to discuss the Good Neighbor Agreement. In this time, the RoundTable has published an inside look at the shelter operations, perspectives from its residents, and numerous letters to the editor – some in favor of the shelter proposal (including from Mayor Daniel Biss and Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma), and others voicing opposition.

The matter of the Margarita Inn shelter, and homelessness in Evanston more broadly, will likely continue to be a contentious political issue beyond the vote on Connections’ special use proposal. Readers can count on the RoundTable to continue its coverage.

Alex Harrison

Alex Harrison joined the RoundTable in 2022 for the summer in between his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Since then, he continues to write...

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  1. A significant omission was made in this characterization of the timeline: In 2020, the City of Evanston filed a tax lien against the previous owners of the Margarita Inn for nearly $500,000. It was only after this, that the previous owners agreed to allow Connections for the Homeless to use the Inn as a shelter, as an in-kind payment to the City, in order to work off the tax lien.

    This is a fact that should not be buried and left out of the discussion, as it is dubious that this in-kind arrangement likely never made the taxpayers of Evanston whole, especially since it was caused by poor governance and oversight by the City itself — two things that will be sorely needed if the Margarita Inn does become a permanent homeless shelter.

    The details of the tax lien situation were reported by The RoundTable in its January 17, 2020 story titled “City Files Lien Against The Margarita Inn to Recover Back Payment of Taxes Close to $500k”.

    Another topical example of The City of Evanston’s poor track-record of governance and oversight with a high-profile special-use property can be seen with the Harley Clark mansion. The mansion currently sits dilapidated and empty, despite being occupied continuously by the Evanston Art Center from the mid-1960’s until 2011, under an agreement in which the City leased the mansion to EAC for $1 per year with the understanding the EAC would maintain the interior while the City maintained the exterior. The City routinely absolved EAC from their maintenance requirement, ultimately leaving taxpayers on the hook for what will likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance costs.

    While the Margarita Inn and Harley Clark situations are very different, the thing that is the same is the question of: whether or not the City can provide the necessary and required governance and oversight to the Margarita Inn/Connections for the Homeless operation so as not to suffer the same fate as the Harley Clark mansion? If similar dilapidation occurs on Oak Street, many more homes, businesses and people will be negatively impacted than anyone has been by the dereliction shown with the Harley Clark mansion.

  2. As everyone knows, we have a big problem in Evanston.Actually, we have more than one, but the unhomed and how to house them is one that connects closely to the diminishing tax-base in the city due to the proliferation of properties owned by Northwestern. What can be done when, to my mind, we have a moral imperative to take care of our less fortunate citizens, and less money to house them, unless we have organizations like Connections to serve them. How can we support Connections and give them the tools to supervise their clients and make sure the community also feels secure and well-monitored? I believe we can do it, but let’s try to do it with less animosity and contention than has been so far been evident.