City Council approves Connections for the Homeless rooming house permit, signs operating agreement


Daily file photo by Mika Ellison

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th). Niewusma said he has been working on the operating agreement for the Margarita Inn to address residents’ concerns.

Casey He, Assistant City Editor

City Council voted Monday to approve a special use permit for Connections for the Homeless to operate a rooming house at the Margarita Inn.

Connections, an Evanston-based nonprofit, has been offering housing services to individuals experiencing houselessness at the five-story residential building on Oak Avenue since March 2020.

Following the city’s decision in March 2022 that the previous special use permit for the Margarita Inn had expired, Connections applied for a new special use permit. On May 9, the council voted 6-2 to introduce an ordinance for the permit.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said he supports Connections’ plan for the Margarita Inn and appreciates residents who are supportive of the space, as well as those who raised concerns, which Nieuwsma said he had worked hard to address.

“This is the right thing to do, this is working in other communities and we have overwhelming support in this neighborhood,” Nieuwsma said.

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

The council also voted 6-2 to authorize City Manager Luke Stowe to sign an operating agreement with Connections for the Margarita Inn. In February, the council passed an ordinance to create the Shared Housing Provider License that now requires each housing provider to submit an agreement detailing its operation to the city.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st), along with Ald. Thomas Suffredin (6th), voted against both the permit and the operating agreement. She said she thinks the agreement lacks specificity.

“We as a city have to make sure that, in the operating agreement, everything we want for the safety and welfare of those residents is explicit,” she said.

Kelly cited several instances in the current operating agreement she finds unclear. For example, the agreement requires “a minimum of two (Connections) employees” to be at the Margarita Inn at all times, but does not specify their role or whether one would be awake around the clock, she said.

She made a motion to table the ordinance for the city and Connections to further clarify the operating agreement but failed to get a second.

Pushing back, Nieuwsma said he has been working on the operating agreement with Daniel Lauber, an attorney and expert on housing and zoning laws. Nieuwsma has incorporated many changes Lauber suggested, such as adding mental and physical health screenings to the residents’ onboarding process.

The city also should not overcomplicate the agreement and interfere with Connections’ operation, he added.

“This is not the city’s homeless shelter,” Nieuwsma said. “This is Connections for the Homeless, who have decades of experience doing this work.”

During the meeting, Kelly also raised concerns over the recent ethics complaints filed against Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) and Ald. Devon Reid (8th) for not recursing themselves in the May 9 vote to introduce the ordinance that came before council Monday. Revelle is reported to have made large donations to Connections, while Reid has received financial assistance from the organization.

In response to the complaint against Revelle, Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings said the city code considers a conflict of interest to be present only if it benefits the councilmember.

“I am not aware and I have not been made aware of any benefit that bestowed upon Councilmember Revelle for her vote related to this issue,” Cummings said.

Reid also said he planned to vote on the two ordinances related to Connections.

“I received general assistance that was available to anyone in the public to the best of my knowledge,” Reid said. “I did not ask for nor receive any special treatment, and my almost lifelong record on these issues will clearly indicate that this is something I would be supporting.”

About five residents spoke during public comment against granting the special use permit to Connections.

Eric Paset, the owner of North Shore Apartments & Condos Inc, said the rooming house would not be a solution to houselessness in Evanston without costing the city.

“If somebody were to buy this building and (pay), say, $3 million for it, that’d be about $100,000 every year in real estate taxes that would go towards the city,” Paset said. “If it was a hotel, it would be even more than that.”

The overwhelming majority of residents, however, spoke in support of Connections and the Margarita Inn.

Evanston resident and Connections board member Steve Hackney urged councilmembers to vote to formally approve the permit.

“Look at this room. It is full of Evanstonians who took time out of their day to come tonight and say we support this project,” Hackney said. “We want to be the type of people that help out, not the type of people that turn away.”

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Twitter: @caseeey_he

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