South Bend Heritage slows homeless apartments at neighbors’ request

By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune Jul 16, 2019

SOUTH BEND — South Bend Heritage Foundation has pulled from Tuesday’s Area Plan Commission agenda a rezoning request for a planned apartment building for the chronically homeless amid concerns from the site’s neighbors.

The nonprofit wants to build at least 20 units on three empty lots in the 1500 block of West Washington Street, a project that would be similar to the group’s Oliver Apartments, which uses a “housing first” model known as “permanent supportive housing,” said Marco Mariani, executive director of South Bend Heritage.

But Mariani stressed this project would target a “much different” group of chronically homeless people who aren’t as “vulnerable” as those housed at the 32-unit Oliver Apartments on the near southwest side. Tenants for that project, which opened in November 2017, have been identified by homeless and mental health service providers as having the most contacts with police and hospital emergency rooms, along with having diagnosed mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. The same “coordinated entry” list would be used to find tenants for the new project, but their needs would be less severe, Mariani said.

“They might have a mental health disorder that’s been diagnosed, they might not, but they’re going to score on the vulnerability index at a level that categorizes them as chronically homeless,” Mariani said. “We’ll go out, we’ll find these individuals, they can either choose to be housed or not, and we’ll move forward from there.”

The APC had been set to consider a request to rezone the site from light industrial to mixed use at its meeting Tuesday before Mariani heeded a request from the Near West Side Neighborhood Organization to table it until the commission’s next meeting, on Aug. 20.

The site’s neighbors felt the project was moving too quickly, said Marty Mechtenberg, NWSNO president.

“We’re happy they’re willing to delay it a month,” Mechtenberg said.

He said Mariani called him and first informed him about the project last month, and gave a detailed presentation, answering neighbors’ questions afterward, at the group’s monthly meeting June 25, which was attended by about 60 members.

Whether the neighborhood group opposes the project is a “complicated question,” Mechtenberg said.

“There were a lot of questions and you could tell at the meeting that there was also a lot of mixed feelings,” Mechtenberg said. “There were some folks who said this is a great idea, we want to help our fellow man and we trust South Bend Heritage. There were other people who felt very quickly, hell no. This is going to be more crime, decreased property values. Everybody left the meeting thinking we would like to know more.”

Mechtenberg said personally he’s “leaning yes” to support the project but sees his role as gathering and disseminating information to neighbors rather than trying to convince others.

“I think housing for the homeless in this fashion is a good idea, but also I sympathize with my neighbors: Why this neighborhood?” he said.

The NWSNO is bounded by William Street to the east, Western Avenue to the south, College Avenue to the west and LaSalle Avenue to the north.

Mechtenberg said the group’s members want to take a vote on whether to support or oppose the project. If that happens, he would like to simply share the results of the vote with the city’s common council, which must approve the rezoning.

“I think we as a neighborhood need to function on something more than just a majority basis,” he said. “So 51 percent of the neighborhood is not enough of a strong voice for me to write a letter in the name of the neighborhood, opposing the project. Maybe if it’s two-thirds of the neighborhood or 70 percent is opposed, we write the letter.”

Since the June 25 meeting, Mechtenberg said, some neighbors have toured the Oliver Apartments and attended a Rum Village Neighborhood Association meeting to hear feedback from its neighbors. They also have examined police calls to Oliver Apartments, which were heavy in the first year but seem to have “calmed down a little bit.”

South Bend Heritage would pay for the estimated $3.5 million construction cost with $2.2 million from the state of Indiana and $1.3 million from the city — $800,000 in federal block grant money allocated to the city and $300,000 in tax incremental finance property tax money.

The situation marks another potential obstacle that the Mayor Pete Buttigieg administration must overcome to help the chronically homeless. The city also earmarked money to build a housing-first intake or “gateway” center but hasn’t been able to find a site that’s not opposed by neighbors.

Last year the city tried to establish the center on South Michigan Street, near existing services for the homeless, but scrapped the project in the face of heated opposition from the Southeast Organized Area Residents Inc., who said they have enough such services in their area.

“There are certain neighborhoods they wouldn’t dare propose this project in,” Mechtenberg said of the apartment building. “If you’re south of Notre Dame, they wouldn’t dare propose this project. Why is it our neighborhood? We have a lot of low-income housing. It’s seen as an easier place to stick a project like that.”