Immigrants fear being forced out of Glen Ellyn homes
Wani Suliman has lived in his Glen Ellyn apartment since the day he arrived in the United States: June 17, 2004.
That was after fleeing his war-torn home country of Sudan and spending 17 years in Egypt.
So the African refugee, who has made his home at the Parkside Apartments along Roosevelt Road, was shocked when he got a letter from the village indicating he could be displaced again.
The letter was a notification sent to residents within the boundaries of a proposed tax increment financing district that it was "reasonably expected" redevelopment of the area could result in their displacement.
"When I received that notification, it was really ... I struggled to read it," Suliman said.
Village leaders say that's normal legalese included in such letters and there are no plans to demolish the apartments, where many refugees and immigrants like Suliman live.
But it is an option.
And that's why residents told village officials this week they want more assurances they'll be able to stay put.
"I hope the village board could consider excluding the Parkside Apartments from this TIF district, as you have excluded the Jewel and other places," Suliman said at a meeting attended by some 200 Parkside residents and supporters from area churches and refugee support groups.
Since February, Glen Ellyn officials have been looking into creating a TIF district for a portion of the Roosevelt Road corridor in light of the increasing number of business vacancies and lack of private development.
Designating the area as a TIF district would allow property taxes paid to local governments to be frozen for as many as 23 years, with extra property tax money collected within the area going into a special fund controlled by the village.
That money could be used for paying for public infrastructure projects such as new sewer mains, traffic signals and signage, or could be used as incentives for developers to build larger-scale projects.
The formal TIF implementation process can take four to six months. One of the first steps is to notify affected residents that a public meeting to discuss the proposed district will occur.
Such meetings are usually low-key and procedural, rarely attended by more than a handful of residents within a proposed district.
But Monday's session about the proposed Glen Ellyn district filled the village board room and two overflow rooms, where people could watch a presentation by village officials on a closed-circuit TV feed. Afterward, roughly 45 people came to the microphone over the course of two hours -- almost all to speak against including the Parkside Apartments in the district.
They included immigrants, their children who attend local schools, and others who've come to know them in the community.
Jessica Gbor, a 10-year-old refugee from Liberia, took the podium and asked village officials about the fate of her apartment.
"I love Parkside, and I don't want it to be taken down," she said. "If you take Parkside down, will you give us a home?"
Village Manager Mark Franz said the law requires "we try to find another home for you if we are to do something with your existing home."
"But remember there are no plans to do that," Franz said.
The Parkside Apartments at 18 N. Parkside Ave. are made up of eight, two-story buildings tucked behind a used car dealership on Roosevelt Road. Buildings face each other with courtyards in between, the dirt and concrete serving as community gathering spots where children often play. Many of the courtyards are overgrown with bushes and shrubs.
The apartments are included in one of three so-called "opportunity sites" the village has targeted for improvements along Roosevelt Road that could include the replacement of underused properties with new development, or the improvement of existing buildings, according to Staci Hulseberg, the village's director of planning and development.
The 5.12-acre site that includes the apartments also includes businesses with auto-oriented uses and service establishments.
The village's comprehensive plan, adopted in 2001, says the area could be suitable for retail, business or restaurant uses, or possible long-term redevelopment with multifamily and commercial mixed uses. If the existing buildings remain, the comprehensive plan recommends landscaping and building improvements.
"There is nothing firmed up on any of these sites," Hulseberg said. "There's been no talks with any developers. The village is not pursuing or pushing any projects on any of these three sites."
She said the village has no plans to pursue eminent domain to acquire the apartment complex, and such power has never been used in town for economic development or commercial purposes -- only for acquiring land for utilities and a public park.
While many residents asked the village to remove the apartments from the proposed TIF district, Franz said one of the reasons it was included is officials believe the apartments need upgrades to be viable.
"I think folks are assuming (displacement) is the first plan of the TIF district. Maybe it's the 10th plan of the TIF district. Everything's on the table," Franz said.
Were the apartments to be demolished as part of redevelopment efforts, the TIF law requires the village to provide residents a 90-day notice, reimburse moving expenses, and provide payments related to obtaining comparable replacement housing.
Franz and Hulseberg said the residents would be in a better position with the TIF district than not because of those added protections. Were a developer to purchase the apartment complex and raze it, residents' leases could be immediately terminated, they said.
Some pastors at churches in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton encouraged their congregations to attend Monday's meeting.
Pamela Klein, who attends Jerrico Road Church in Wheaton, said many immigrants worship at the church. She asked village leaders to "see the wonderful and diverse members of our community."
"I hear you say you're addressing the needs of the entire community," Klein told village leaders. "We really don't know what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like. What does it look like for those friends of the community who live in the Parkside Apartments?"
Employees and volunteers with World Relief, a nonprofit organization that supports immigrants and refugees, also spoke about the implications of including the Parkside Apartments in the TIF district.
"Look around this room and the other two. What has been created by Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Carol Stream and Glendale Heights being a home for World Relief?" said Emily Gray, the executive director of the organization's DuPage/Aurora chapter. "This is not Mom and Dad's Glen Ellyn or Wheaton. It's not. It's a different community today and it's because of the strength of the people who are here.
"Any plan cannot bring economic development if it disenfranchises people who are such a part of the economic engine -- immigrants in our country," Gray said.
Village officials said they are committed to having affordable housing in Glen Ellyn. While state law requires 10 percent of all housing in town to be classified as "affordable," 20 percent has that classification.
A draft TIF plan is scheduled to be posted on the village's website after June 27, while a joint review board of local governmental taxing bodies to consider the district is expected to convene July 31. A formal public hearing and consideration of ordinances establishing the district by the village board is expected in September.