The Evanston City Council on Monday night approved Connections for the Homeless’ request for a special use permit, clearing the way for the group to run the city’s first permanent homeless shelter at the Margarita Inn, 1566 Oak Ave.
Council members voted 6-2 to grant Connections’ request for special use zoning for a rooming house – a necessary step for the group to operate a homeless shelter in the residential neighborhood on a permanent basis.
Council members then followed with another 6-2 vote authorizing the city manager to sign an operating agreement with Connections containing provisions governing its operation of the establishment.
In both votes, Council Members Clare Kelly (1st Ward) and Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward) voted against and Bobby Burns (5th Ward) was out of the chamber dealing with a separate issue and did not participate.
Connections’ supporters, who had packed the council chambers, broke into applause at the approval of the agency’s request, which had been set in motion during the early days of COVID-19 when the organization reached out to get the homeless off the street.
“I’m a little bit at a loss for words,” an emotional Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections, said later when asked for a reaction. “But I’m so grateful to the city, to staff, the council. This is really important and Evanston has an opportunity to be a real leader in this work.”
Contract to buy
Connections has a contract to purchase the 46-room facility, which it plans to operate as a shelter for up to 70 people.
Earlier this year, Connections and Mayor Daniel Biss signed a good neighbor agreement to operate the Margarita Inn as a shelter, with commitments that go beyond the applicable city regulations, staff reported in a memo to the council. The agreement includes “who is responsible if and when concerns arise and the points of contact who will respond and take appropriate action,” the memo said.
Neighbors around the property, though, had countered with a good neighbor proposal of their own, calling for limiting the building’s capacity to 30 homeless residents and limiting stays at the Margarita to no longer than 15 months.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, in whose Fourth Ward the building is located, said Connections’ approach “is working in other communities. And we have overwhelming support in this neighborhood.
“And so I want to say thank you to everybody who lives on Oak, who lives in the neighborhood and who lives in other neighborhoods in Evanston for supporting this initiative,” Nieuwsma said. “And I also want to say thank you to the folks who have expressed their concerns. And it’s been my intention through this process to listen to everybody, to meet with everybody who has requested a meeting, and I have done my best to accommodate the concerns of the neighbors to make sure that we’re putting together a program that we can all be proud of, for years to come.”
Council members Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) and Devon Reid (8th Ward), joined the majority in voting to support Connections.
Some neighbors of the Margarita Inn had filed ethics complaints against Revelle and Reid after the council’s May 8 meeting, maintaining they each had a conflict of interest and should have recused themselves from voting to introduce the issue.
The complaints against Revelle were based on her reportedly large financial donations over a number of years to Connections. In addition, neighbors raised her role as chairman of the Housing and Community Development Committee, when that group in September 2022 moved to dedicate $1 million in federal American Recovery Plan Act funds to renovate a “non-congregate shelter,” such as Connections operates.
In Reid’s case, the complaints alleged that his vote was in violation of the city’s ethics code because he had accepting emergency housing assistance money from the agency while its application for a special use was pending.
In discussion at the May 22 meeting, Council Member Kelly asked staff about the concerns raised over not recusing.
To Revelle, she said, “my understanding is that you and your husband have donated upwards of $100,000. I think we should all be aware of this in order to understand peoples’ interest.”
Revelle hasn’t addressed neighbors’ complaints, except to ask a city attorney at the May 8 meeting whether she would have a conflict of interest in voting. Alexandra Ruggie, the city’s deputy attorney, told Revelle that based on city and county financial disclosure requirements, a donation does not create a conflict of interest.
Also at the May 8 meeting, Reid acknowledged that he had received rental assistance from Connections. But he said that should not disqualify him. He said his vote was intended “to stand up for any future council member who may be low income or in their term becomes low income and needs rental assistance. That should not disqualify a council member from participating in the system.”
At Monday’s meeting, Reid said his position remained the same and that he planned to vote on the issue.
“There are 17 ethics complaints filed against me,” he said. “So if there’s three more people that want to make an even 20, let’s go for it.
“I firmly believe in my ability to vote on this item. I received a general assistance that was available to anyone in the public. To the best of my knowledge I did not ask for, nor receive any special treatment.”
To Kelly’s concerns, Nicholas Cummings, the city’s corporation counsel, said council members have been been provided counsel with regard to alleged or purported conflicts.
“I believe that all advice has been followed consistently by each individual person based upon the advice that was given,” he said.
To the complaints brought against Revelle specifically, he noted that the Evanston City Code “when its comes to conflicts, talks about conflicts being present if it benefits the member of the council.”
“What we’re talking about here is a purported bias because a council member is supporting an applicant financially, completely separate from her duties on the council,” Cummings said. “So I am not aware, and I have not been made aware, of any benefit bestowed upon Council Member Revelle.” He said in his reading of the code, he did not believe she had a conflict.
The neighbors’ complaints went to the city’s special counsel, who under the city’s ethics ordinance makes the first determination on whether there is a basis for a violation.
In council discussion, Kelly had called on council members to hold off action on the issue and give more study to recommendations that housing expert Daniel Lauber had advised the city to include in an operating agreement with Connections.
Council Member Nieuwsma spoke of the changes that officials had made after the May 8 meeting to incorporate Lauber’s suggestions.
He said they included changes to the onboarding process, including screening for mental health and physical issues.
In another section, he said in a verbal summary, “We added the requirements that the manager [of the homeless shelter] should be required to take appropriate action after an issue, as well as extending the prohibition of loitering and panhandling to include adjacent properties.”
He said the changes also included a section requiring Connections to provide an annual report on the outcomes of staff at the facility working with residents.
Lauber indicated however that some recommendations weren’t covered, when Kelly ceded her time to allow him to address the council.
A former resident of Evanston, Lauber said he spends most of his time representing group housing arrangements nationally, crafting regulations to make sure that people in those living arrangements are protected. He said one of the things that concerned him initially with the Margarita Inn operation agreement was “how loosey-goosey” it was.
“It lacks specificity,” Lauber told council members. “That leaves everybody at a disadvantage.”
He said the areas that fall in that category include staffing minimums, “what the levels of staff Connections will maintain,” specifying that if they wish to to reduce the level of staffing” what levels of notification should be in place.
He also pinpointed other areas.
“You can’t just say … ‘do an annual report.’ There’s no clarity there.”
Lauber also named the number of residents, median number of residents, length of residency at the Margarita Inn, number of violations, safety incidents – “a whole number of things that will enable the city to council to to evaluate whether Connections is living up to its assertions.”
Most suggestions incorporated: Nieuwsma
Nieuwsma said the vast majority of Lauber’s recommendations have been incorporated in one way, shape or form into the operating agreement.
“And if we need to make changes in the future we certainly have the mechanism built in to be able to do that,” he said.
Kelly used as an example a claim that the facility would have a smoke-free environment as an example of the need for more specificity. If you look deeper at the city’s Clean Air Act, she said, “it doesn’t preclude smoking in the Margarita and it would say that in 25% of the private rooms residents could smoke.”
For that reason, she said, “We have to make sure that in the operating agreement everything we want for the safety and welfare of these residents is explicitly in the operating agreement, including like smoking, including staffing.”
During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, all but a few of close to 50 speakers spoke in spoke in support of Connections’ request, including some residents of buildings close to the Margarita.
“Connections is a strong institution with stable and professional leadership,” said Linda Gerber, a board member of the Evanston Community Foundation. “It’s well run, it’s responsible, it’s responsive, and that is why the community members who make our funding decisions have supported it for more than 35 years now.
‘We should be thanking them’
“As a community foundation, we are proud to stand by Connections in their work at the Margarita and we know that they make a difference not just in the lives of the people they serve, but that they make Evanston stronger for all of us.”
Melissa Appelt, board president of Interfaith Action of Evanston, told council members she was speaking on behalf of the board and said she brought a petition with more than 600 signatures in support of the Margarita and Connections for the Homeless.
“Yesterday at my church and my faith community, I was listening to a guest pastor and he admonished us and challenged us to to really show up, take a risk and do the work of making this a better world. And I was thinking this is what Connections is doing with the Margarita and we should be thanking them. We should be supporting them and thanking them.”
Another speaker, Susan Munro, who said she is a near neighbor of the Margarita, said, “Tonight I did a survey of the owners of the 21 units in our building and asked if they were in favor of the Margarita, if they had had any unpleasant interactions with the Margarita and only three people answered, which really says nobody really cares that much. It’s just there. It’s not upsetting anyone.
“One person said all of their interactions had been pleasant and enriching. One person had had some negative interactions at the beginning of the pandemic, when I think we were all a bit on edge. During the last three years there have been six sales of units in our 21-unit building. They’ve all been sold quickly and either at or above the asking price. So I would say there has not been a big negative impact.”
But Eric Paset, a Fourth Ward resident, said the reason council members aren’t seeing as many people opposed to the Margarita Inn, “it’s because I feel we have been silenced.”
He pointed to the good neighbor agreement signed by Mayor Biss and Bogg as “doing the cutting of the ribbon before this has been decided.”
“Basically, it says you don’t care about our opinion,” he said.
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Thank you Connections and City Council for making this happen.
I am happy that Evanston is stepping up to do its part to end homelessness. It’s just not enough, more needs to be done on a national scale. Many homeless suffer from psychological issues/disorders. All we offer is “thoughts and prayers” instead of funding mental health.
Second issue. Its not a ethics violation to use services that are available to everyone and everyone in need. People are just using “ethics complaint” to silence those they disagree with.
Roundtable- I would ask of you to provide a better analysis of the steps taken for this building conversion from a tax role facility to a NFP, with the original issue of owed back taxes.
A Step by Step analysis over the years in the making.
Followed by how many homeless type facilities are operating in Evanston.
Also, the average cost of rentals in different areas and vacancy.
A follow up to the homeless situation of who is allowed and why are they homeless? Will this be a refugee area for the cheapest of labor or seasonal laborers?
Again, my property taxes are a few thousand a month. Each month. And wonder why there are so many homeless?? The cost of repairs to maintain the house are usurped by property tax. Is this why areas want to remain untouched, an un-towered because if touched, property tax is raised.
Leadership answer is more spending, de fundung businesses, and more density? More towers- This is Not a very green answer.
I am wondering why this facility conversion did not need a referendum?
The city has taken a beautiful gem of an historic Evanston facility that could have provided training, jobs, and a much needed affordable hotel B and B type place to stay offering to enhance downtown tourism, temporary visitors, as there is NO industry base here. What happened to the building owner to be in such a spot of back tax despair?
Why is this such a difficult concept to have viable businesses, which offer hope and jobs?
Please do a thorough 6 year analysis.
I used to say, “I’m proud to live in Evanston”, but after this nonsensical City Council session I’m feeling more like I live in some backwater banana republic named “Absurdistan”…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
It’s not “Absurdistan.” I prefer Bizarroburg, Loonyville, Nonsensetown, or Wackytown.
Rest assured, the Margarita is just one battle. On the plus side – silver linings are so important – the mayor, several aldermen, the city manager, and city legal council have all self-identified as anti-Evanston. Ethical violations have been revealed and blatantly overlooked. Political ties to Cook County and its money train have all been revealed. The slogan of these imposters is “Evanston Last.”
Only Kelly and Suffredin stand apart from this anti-Evanston crew. Yes, that’s only two aldermen but that means I only need three more, and I know where to start.