Motivated by the severe shortage of facilities and undeterred by resistance in two nearby suburbs, several organizations have banded together to propose a permanent supportive housing development in Palatine.
Catherine Alice Gardens would replace the vacant warehouse at 345 Eric Drive near downtown and feature 33 studio, one- and two-bedroom leased apartments for low-income individuals and small families with disabilities and mental illness. A resident building manager and therapeutic staff members would provide support services on site.
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Proponents see the development as a vital step to increasing the supportive housing stock and helping more residents begin their journeys toward recovery.
"Community-based treatment such as this works financially, clinically and improves the overall quality of life and dignity of a person," said Rick Germann, director of operations at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights. "With the right support, these people can live independently in the community."
The North/Northwest Suburban Task Force on Supportive Housing for People with Mental Illness, UP Development, Kenneth Young Center and the Alexian Brothers facility are behind the project, named for Catherine Barrett and Alice Byrne, longtime advocates for people with mental illness.
Hugh Brady, a task force member and president of the Illinois affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called the location "marvelous" for its proximity to the Metra station, downtown amenities and retailers along Northwest Highway.
The existing warehouse is one of several along that stretch of Eric Drive. Architects designed the apartments to blend in with the townhouses just north across Cornell Avenue.
Because the site is currently zoned for manufacturing, Palatine Village Manager Reid Ottesen said the plan commission has to consider rezoning it as a planned development.
The village staff is reviewing preliminary plans, and Ottesen expects the proposal to go before the plan commission in late May or June.
The facility wouldn't open until 2015 at the earliest, Brady said.
On top of needing the village council's go-ahead, winning approval and financing from the Illinois Housing Development Authority is a competitive process that can last more than a year. Another year of construction would follow.
Project manager Jessica Berzac of UP Development said the $10.5 million project would be financed mostly through tax credit equity, which essentially is a government-subsidized private investment program. Federal and state loans with low-interest rates also would be used for nonconstruction expenses.
Despite the drawn-out time frame, project leaders last month held a community meeting about the plan. Several concerns arose including the effect on potential flooding, but Brady said water drainage would actually improve because the site is mostly pavement and roof now.
Although details are being ironed out, Ottesen applauded the initiative to meet with community residents.
"Anytime you're looking to make a significant change, it's a good idea to do something like this," he said.
"They were essentially introducing themselves and were open and upfront about the project, and my understanding is that there was a lot of good dialogue and feedback."
An effective public relations effort likely will play a part in whether the project receives approval.
While a permanent supportive housing development in a commercial area in Mount Prospect known as Myers Place was well-received and is slated to open in June, projects in Arlington Heights and Wheeling faced massive pushback.
Neighbors pointed to a range of concerns including traffic, flooding, property values and safety. Trustees rejected the proposals, citing zoning regulations.
The developer and its partner agencies sued the villages, accusing them of violating fair-housing laws. The Arlington Heights case was dismissed, while a federal judge last month issued a ruling in the Wheeling case essentially stating the village would lose if it went to trial.
"Unfortunately, there's continued societal stigma," said Germann, the Alexian Brothers official.
"We've seen it with Wheeling and Arlington Heights, and it's a shame.
"We've run a facility for eight people in downtown Arlington Heights for more than 20 years and haven't had a single incident. The fears that people have are not authentic."
Anyone with a criminal history wouldn't be permitted at Catherine Alice Gardens, and criminal background checks would be conducted for all applications.
Brady, the NAMI official, said a market study done for the controversial Boeger Place apartments in Arlington Heights showed a demand for 973 units for people with mental illness within a five-mile radius.
Germann said there are 150 people on the waitlist for the Alexian Brothers center's housing programs.
Supporters of such projects point to numerous benefits.
For one, Germann said many people with mental illness end up in a higher level of care than they need.
Many currently in a nursing home or institutions for mental disease, or IMDs, costing about $30,000 annually could live successfully in a facility such as Catherine Alice Gardens for half that.
About 17,000 people with mental illness live in nursing homes and IMDs in Illinois, Germann said.
Brady said many residents see their symptoms disappear upon moving to a stable environment.
"A lot of people with disabilities are living in very tenuous housing situations," Brady said. "They're at home with aging parents or couch surfing with relatives or depend on shelters and nursing homes.
"When they have permanent housing, their stress levels go way down and their symptoms can abate. They get jobs and get their lives back in order and redintegrate into the community."