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South Bend residents uneasy about new apartment plan for the homeless

South Bend residents uneasy about new apartment plan for the homeless

By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune, November 13, 2019

SOUTH BEND — About two months after west-side residents defeated a proposal to build an apartment building for the chronically homeless in their neighborhood, a lack of information Wednesday about the city’s next effort to address the problem had rattled and angered neighbors.

Their concerns stemmed from an item on the agenda for this afternoon’s redevelopment commission meeting, stating that city neighborhood development director Pam Meyer would update the commission on the Mayor Pete Buttigieg administration’s plans.

The city no longer plans to spend $1.5 million in tax incremental financing district property tax dollars on a homeless gateway center, money the commission approved in March 2018 for that purpose.

That pivot has been public knowledge since Aug. 20 when Buttigieg told the Common Council that he was scrapping the gateway center idea, partly because the city couldn’t find a site that neighbors wouldn’t oppose.

But Meyer today will also tell the commission that the administration will spend $1 million of that $1.5 million to support roof, masonry and fire stair improvements at the Gemini Apartments, the historic apartment buildings that South Bend Heritage Foundation has been renovating for market-rate leasing.

The nonprofit would reserve an unspecified number of the Gemini units for the chronically homeless to rent with state-funded permanent supportive housing (PSH) vouchers, according to a memo the commission released Tuesday.

The memo touched off alarms in the neighborhood and on the council, which Aug. 27 voted down the rezoning needed for the 22-unit homeless apartment building in the 1500 block of West Washington Street, about nine blocks west of the Gemini Apartments.

The apartment complex has two 30-unit, mirror-image buildings — one facing Washington Street and the other fronting Colfax Avenue. Neighbors who saw the memo assumed that South Bend Heritage planned to reserve the entire Colfax building for people with PSH vouchers, partly because of the large amount of money being spent and also because of their distrust of South Bend Heritage resulting from the first project attempt, said Marty Mechtenberg, president of the Near West Side Neighborhood Organization.

South Bend Heritage officials long have said they might reserve eight to 10 Gemini units for PSH vouchers. Mechtenberg said most of his neighbors would support that amount because they would be integrated with market-rate tenants.

South Bend Heritage Executive Director Marco Mariani did not return messages seeking comment.

Buttigieg spokesman Mark Bode and Meyer declined The Tribune’s interview requests Wednesday, but late in the day, Bode released a written statement saying that only “up to six” Gemini apartments will be reserved for PSH vouchers.

“People can calm down,” Mechntenberg said when hearing that news from a Tribune reporter.

But Bode’s statement raised another question: Does this mean the city will spend $1 million to house six homeless people? Or does the policy pivot mean the city has decided to spend less money on homelessness, since the $1 million in repairs will include market-rate units?

“That’s what’s confusing to me,” Mechtenberg said, “and that’s why additional clarity on the issue is needed.”

He said he expects a dozen or so neighbors to attend the 4 p.m. redevelopment commission meeting, held on the County-City Building’s 13th Floor.

The city is also planning to spend an undisclosed amount of federal grant money to renovate the Gemini Apartments’ interiors, and the remaining $500,000 in TIF money initially earmarked for the gateway center would be reserved to build a new PSH project at a location yet to be determined, according to Meyer’s memo to the commission.

Council member Sharon McBride, who supported her southeast side constituents’ opposition to locating a gateway center on south Michigan Street, criticized the administration for not notifying neighbors and the council about the plans.

“I’m baffled a little bit — well not a little bit, quite a bit — that this has come together without our knowledge,” McBride said.