City Council introduces ordinance to grant Connections for the Homeless rooming house permit


William Tong/Daily Senior Staffer

At a full City Council meeting Monday night, residents mostly in support of Connections for the Homeless fill the seating area outside of the council chambers.

William Tong, Staff Editor

City Council voted Monday night to introduce an ordinance that would grant Connections for the Homeless a permit to operate a rooming house at the Margarita Inn.  

The motion passed 6-2. At its April 26 meeting, Evanston’s Land Use Commission did not make a recommendation for or against the council granting a permit.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), who represents the ward where the inn is located, said the city should approve the permit to help house Evanston’s unhoused population. 

“Part of the solution is putting people in a building, getting people a roof over their heads,” he said. “This is exactly what Connections for the Homeless is doing.”  

Connections, an Evanston-based organization that offers services to houseless individuals, has provided living space to unhoused people since March 2020 in the Margarita Inn. It applied for a new special use permit after the city determined in March 2022 that the Margarita Inn’s previous permit had expired.

[Read more about the community debate around Margarita Inn here.]

Most residents who attended the council meeting voiced support for Connections’ continued use of the Margarita Inn, located at 1566 Oak Ave., but adding there’s a need for increased housing security. 

According to Evanston pastor Laura Harris-Ferree, inn residents said they “feel comfortable and supported” there.

Several members of Connections’ Board of Directors also spoke during public comment, advocating for  a special use permit. In total, almost 30 attendees spoke in favor of Connections during the meeting’s public comment period.

However, about five residents who attended the meeting said the council needs to more closely examine Connections’ operations before granting the permit. 

“I’m asking you to think long-term consequences and not rush into action,” 4th Ward property owner Meg Welch said. “The devil is the details.”

The application for a new special use permit has faced two challenges in court since the beginning of 2023. 

A Cook County judge halted City Council from discussing the special permit in February, requiring Cameel Halim — who owns ​​the Halim Time and Glass Museum next to the inn — to first give public comment at a Land Use Commission meeting. 

Lawrence Starkman, a landlord who owns an apartment complex next to the Margarita Inn, filed a complaint against the inn’s owner April 24. In it, he alleges Connections’ usage of the inn has resulted in “loss of tenants, loss of income, and overall loss of value” for his property. 

Starkman is asking for the Cook County Circuit Court to block the inn from receiving the special permit. 

During Monday’s meeting, Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) raised concerns about the city’s proposed operating agreement with Connections, which is separate from a special use permit. 

She said the city’s proposed operating agreement does not include requirements for landline number availability, Narcan training for residents and fire escape instructions.

Nieuwsma pushed back, saying the city’s operation agreement has provisions for Kelly’s concerns. To residents worried about how Connections’ runs the inn, Nieuwsma pointed to the Good Neighbor Agreement signed by Mayor Daniel Biss and Connections CEO Betty Bogg in February. 

“Mutual expectations are established and communication channels are established,” he said. However, specific regulations for Connections will still come from the conditions of the special use permit and operating agreement, Nieuwsma said.

For Ald. Devon Reid (8th), who said he received rental assistance from Connections, the organization’s services are important because housing is a human right, he said. 

“We have to prioritize creating housing opportunities for folks who are addicted, folks who have mental illness … folks who are least proximate to power,” he said. 

City Council plans to vote on granting the permit at its May 22 meeting.

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