Editorial: The need for openness on housing projects

You might be tempted to think local governments communicate with each other better than they do with the rest of us, but that's not always the case. Officials in Ela Township and the village of Lake Zurich recently were surprised to learn the Lake County Housing Authority has leased a vacant former senior housing facility to PADS Lake County.

The plan is to convert the former 14-unit Midlothian Manor into rental housing for chronically homeless people with mental illness. The project is rolling along. About $100,000 worth of renovations to Midlothian Manor was approved by the housing authority and most of the work has been completed. The goal is to have the new tenants in as soon as possible.

The facility is in an Ela Township residential area, just outside Lake Zurich's border, but township Supervisor Lucy Prouty and Lake Zurich Mayor Thomas Poynton said they heard nary a word about it from the housing authority or PADS. So much for government transparency and cooperation. It's also not a good way to build trust that the project - one that by its nature is likely to generate some concern - will be accepted by neighbors.

Providing housing for the disabled in residential neighborhoods is an important goal, and even when viable projects are proposed with substantial notice and thorough detail, opposition pressure too often thwarts them. But the answer is not less detail and openness; it is more. Developers and overseers must do everything possible to comfort and assure residents that a proposed project will not diminish the quality of life in their neighborhood.

The Midlothian Manor facility would be a new venue for PADS' Safe Haven program that has operated in 13 rooms in a building at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago since 2005.

As part of national trend, such programs are moving from institutional to residential settings.

Clients rent units from PADS by paying a portion of their income from government assistance or a job. Resident services would include lessons on money management and using public transit.

The clients' level of mental illness varies, but is not of the severity that would warrant institutionalization, officials have said. Housing Authority Executive Director David Northern said a re-occupancy permit from the Lake County planning, building and development department is needed for PADS to operate there.

Although no public hearings are required, the housing authority and PADS had an obligation to notify leaders in the community where the program will operate. Doing otherwise creates mistrust, and there's too much of that in government already.

PADS Executive Director Joel Williams said he would understand if the neighborhood is concerned about the program. Williams said he intends to meet with Lake Zurich-area residents to explain the plan, answer questions and attempt to quell any misinformation before Midlothian Manor is occupied.

Meeting with neighbors is the right thing to do. It would have been more reassuring and productive, not to mention simply more neighborly, to do that earlier in the process.

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