By Igor Studenkov
These days, the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Waukegan Road is busy with construction, as a Holiday Inn Express hotel is slowly but surely going up.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the corner was home to the Travelers Inn. It was home to some of Niles most disadvantaged residents. For one reason or another, they didn’t have many housing options. In many cases, they received help and support from the Niles Department of Family Services.
When the hotel was shuttered in February 2015, many former residents turned to Family Services for help. Working together with Winnetka-based nonprofit Open Communities, the department was able to help most of them find housing. But the process was complicated due to the shortage of affordable housing in the area – something that Family Services hopes to address in the future.
In Niles, poverty is a small but growing problem. According to the Healthier Niles Survey report, which was released by the Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in June 2015, 11.5 percent of all Niles residents live in poverty – less than the statewide average of 14.1 percent and nationwide rate of 15.4 percent. But the survey emphasizes that the number of residents had doubled between 2000 and 2013, going up from 5.4 percent.
For those residents, finding affordable housing can be a problem. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Niles has a total of 2,435 rental units. The Niles Health Survey indicated that, as of 2010, renters spend an average of $997 a month on rent and utilities. This is larger than Niles’ $858 average in 2000. 60.4 percent of those renters spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent, which is higher than the national average of 43.2 percent.
With last year’s closing of Travelers Inn, there are now only three options in the Niles area that fall within the McCarthy Foundation’s definition of affordable housing – the Village Motel, Leaning Tower YMCA and the Edgebrook Motel, which sits on the Chicago side of the Niles/Chicago border along Touhy Avenue.
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of Cook County, the village is also home to a public housing development geared toward seniors and two private affordable housing facilities geared toward people with disabilities.
Niles Family Services Director Tony Hollenback told the Bugle that in the past, his department helped an average of 50 to 60 Travelers Inn residents per year. At the time the motel’s owners announced their plans to replace Travelers with a Holiday Inn Express, the department was helping about 20-25 residents.
“Resident assistance provided includes support, resources, case management, counseling, food, and personal hygiene product and clothing,” he said.
That assistance mostly went to residents that were either directly or indirectly affected by domestic violence, mental health issues, addiction and financial issues.
Until November 2014, Family Services used Travelers Inn to provide emergency housing for residents who needed a place to stay. That included residents who left home due to domestic violence and other issues, residents whose homes were made inhabitable by fire and natural disasters, and residents who were evicted. However, concerns about bedbug infestation and building conditions led the department to start using Maine Township’s Cabrini Retreat Center.
When Travelers Inn closed, many of its residents turned to Family Services for help. Hollenback explained that his department works with Open Communities to help residents find affordable housing – and this case was no different.
“By referring them to Open Communities, residents receive a listing of housing options that meet their income or specific housing needs,” he said. “NFS has successfully assisted 75 percent of former Traveler’s Inn residents with permanent housing. “
Hollenback said this percentage is based on the information Open Communities provided. He also said Family Services helped former Travelers Inn residents in other ways.
“Although housing options are limited, NFS was able to find these residents housing and provide additional resources to address the underlying issues that impact their living situation,” said Hollenback. “[This includes] clothing, personal hygiene products, food, transportation, linkage for health care, medication, educational support for homeless youth, employment assistance, etc.”
Still, Hollenback said the shortage of affordable housing in Niles has been an issue throughout the entire process – something that Family Service has been trying to address.
“Overall, there is a critical need for additional housing options for low-income residents and NFS is taking leadership to explore other partnership with community providers to meet this need.”