For the last several weeks, I’ve been fighting to save a 56-unit of affordable housing building for senior citizens in Rogers Park. I am writing today to ask you to join me in this fight, as the owner of the building may be on the verge of selling it to a market rate developer.
CJE SeniorLife (CJE), an organization that provides a range of services for senior citizens, including affordable housing, informed me last month of their intention to sell the Levy House, a 56-unit senior citizen affordable housing building, which they own and operate at 1221 W. Sherwin, just east of Sheridan Road.
Twenty units in the building receive government rental subsidies. CJE has kept rents in the remaining 36 units artificially low, as it is in keeping with their mission to provide seniors with safe, affordable homes.
Though officials at CJE told me they would entertain offers for the building from affordable housing developers, their main goal is to sell the building to the highest bidder, as it is costing them too much money to maintain. I immediately went to work to find affordable housing developers who might be interested in putting in a bid on the property and within days identified at least three interested parties, all respected affordable housing developers with the capacity to undertake this project.
I also secured a commitment from Mayor Emanuel to use the financial resources at the City of Chicago’s disposal to assist the affordable housing developers in making their offers competitive with market rate offers, thereby preserving 56 units of affordable housing in Rogers Park.
At least one of the affordable housing developers’ proposals was competitive with a market rate developer proposal. Unfortunately, as soon as the affordable housing developer made his proposal, the market rate developer suddenly increased his offer and it is the market rate developer’s proposal that CJE is now seriously considering.
When it became clear that my efforts to convince CJE to keep the building affordable had fallen short, I turned to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, who had written extensively on the Presbyterian Homes’ decision in 2015 to put their three senior homes on the market with no protections for the residents.
Brown devoted his column today to the Levy house residents’ plight. He writes movingly of the “supportive, family-like living atmosphere” at the Levy House, which includes among its residents a Holocaust survivor, 94-year-old Jeanne Golestaneh, who says her neighbors in the building helped care for her after two heart attacks. “’I am not capable of taking care of myself,’” Brown quotes Ms. Golestaneh as telling him.
To read Mark Brown’s column in its entirety, click here, or scroll to the bottom of this page.
Last night I visited the residents of the Levy House to update them on my efforts to keep the building affordable. After the meeting, one of the Levy House’s residents, Betsy Golton, handed me a letter in which she writes of the critical role the Levy House and her neighbors play in her life. She gave me permission me to reprint her letter in full:
“I would like to take this opportunity to let you know how very important it is for me to remain at The Levy House. This is my home and more significantly, this is my family (emphasis original). We have strong bonds with each other that I rely on each and every day.
“When I had both shoulders replacement surgery, I was not able to afford an in-home caregiver! [My neighbor]–without me even asking–volunteered to come to my apartment every night and help put my slings on for over 6 weeks!!!! Without her I would not be able to use my slings at all, which was essential to a timely recovery.
“She helped tidy my home and saw to it that I had all my medical supplies and enough food. I was not able to go out and do this for myself. I have always been very independent and this major surgery was devastating because in addition to the painful surgery and recovery, I had a complication that almost took my life.
“If it were not for my family in this building, I can honestly say I might not be here today.”
Jeanne Golestaneh and Betsy Golton remind us that preserving affordable housing in Rogers Park is not simply an abstract concept. It’s about saving the homes of real people who for years led productive lives and now deserve to live their final years with security, dignity and respect.
CJE has earned a well-justified reputation as the preeminent provider of social services and quality affordable housing for senior citizens in Chicago for the last 50 years. I would hate for them to sully this reputation with the hasty sale of a building that could potentially cost seniors their homes and a community that they love and cherish.
I understand and sympathize with the financial pressures CJE is facing and their need to remove Levy House from their portfolio. I also understand the desire of CJE to maximize the return from the sale of a financially troubled building.
But I urge CJE when considering the sale of the Levy House not to lose sight of their mission, which is forth on their website: to “enhance the lives of older adults” so they may live with “independence and dignity.” Part of this commitment, to my mind, compels their organization to consider an offer that may not be the maximum amount they could realize, but that nonetheless is reasonable and will allow them to remain true to their mission.
How can you help? Please join me in writing to CJE Senior Life’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Dan Fagin, (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), and the chairman of their board of directors, Kal Wenig (email: email@example.com). Ask them to take steps to maintain the affordability of the Levy House for generations to come. Urge them to reject any offer that does not contain an ironclad commitment to serve our low-income seniors.
I will keep you posted on the progress of our efforts.
Residents at Levy House ready to fight for their home
By Mark Brown
The seniors who live at Levy House on the city’s far north edge would be the first to tell you how good they’ve got it.
Comfortable apartments at affordable rents in an ideal lakefront location, steps from the beach and close to public transportation, plus best of all, a supportive, family-like living atmosphere.
Many residents say they expected to live there until they died.
That’s what makes it all the more frightening to them that the non-profit owner of their eight-story, 56-unit building at 1221 W. Sherwin may be on the verge of selling to a for-profit developer who could legally force them out.
“I am a Holocaust survivor. They promised to me I could stay in the building. They promised I would never be sent to a nursing home,” said an anguished 94-year-old Jeanne Golestaneh, who has lived at Levy House for 22 years and credits her neighbors in the building with helping care for her after two heart attacks. “I am not capable of taking care of myself.”
Sharing their concern is Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who said he first learned in August that the building was for sale and immediately tried to find affordable housing developers who could keep it as senior housing.
When Moore was informed earlier this month that the owner, CJE SeniorLife, an affiliate of the Council for Jewish Elderly, was preparing to sell to BJB Properties –– a developer that caters to a younger, more upscale crowd –– Moore said he asked the organization to delay taking action until he arranged for a non-profit developer to submit its own competitive bid.
Moore contends CJE SeniorLife then used that competing bid to leverage a higher offer from BJB.
“I think they’re losing sight of their mission,” Moore told me.
Thomas Lockwood, chief financial officer for CJE SeniorLife, suggested the alarm is premature, saying there is “no signed contract” for the building’s sale and denying any attempt to leverage a better offer.
Lockwood said the alderman “gives us a little less credit than we’re probably due.”
“We’re not throwing our mission out the window,” he said. “The residents are not being put out on the street.”
Lockwood said any new buyer will be required to maintain as affordable the 20 apartments in the building that receive government rental subsidies, but would not discuss the length of that commitment.
He insisted the other 36 apartments all rent for “market rate” already and would remain so, but admitted his organization currently keeps those rents artificially low as well.
“We are a business. The building does not pay for itself. We subsidize it operations,” Lockwood said.
Also taking up the residents’ cause is the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, an aggressive advocacy organization that has clashed with Moore in the past over whether he was doing enough to preserve affordable housing.
Organizers arranged for me to meet this week with a group of Levy House residents who say they were blindsided by word of the impending sale.
Listening to them brought an immediate sense of déjà vu because of the similarity of their situation with the residents of Presbyterian Homes, which put three North Side senior apartment buildings on the market in 2015 with no protections for the residents.
Presbyterian Homes residents also thought they had found a family-like environment where they could live out their lives, but learned that even charity-based non-profits prefer to put their money into profitable undertakings.
Two of those Presbyterian Homes veterans came to the Levy House meeting to lend their support.
Levy House residents spoke glowingly about living there. Neighbors routinely take each other to doctor’s appointments, they said, while CJE sends a bus once a week to take them grocery shopping. Plus the building is pet-friendly.
“I was homeless before I came here,” said Gail Rover, 66, who brought her dog, William, to the meeting.
Rover said living in Levy House the past four years has given her the sense of safety and belonging that she never knew she would have again.
Gail Rover, 66, holding her dog, William, said she was homeless before thinking she’d found a home for life at Levy House. | Mark Brown for the Sun-Times
James Sewall, 69, previously lived nearby at Astor House, another apartment building where the poor and elderly were cast out.
Sewall said the new owners gave residents 30 days to leave, putting an eviction on his credit record that made it almost impossible for him to find a new home until the previous manager of Levy House “took pity on me.”
James Sewall, 69, who lost his last apartment when the building was sold to an upscale developer, worries about what will happen if Levy House is sold.
Beverly Alejandro voiced a common refrain.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said.
In the end, the Presbyterian Homes properties were saved as affordable senior housing when the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to purchase them, but only after residents put up a fight.
Levy House residents say they will fight as well.