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Some see new senior housing in South Peoria as a first step toward revitalization. Others see it as a misstep

Revised concept art of the proposed design for the MacArthur Senior Flats, a 60-unit senior housing complex along MacArthur Highway.
Pivotal Housing Partners
Pivotal Housing Partners
Revised concept art of the proposed design for the MacArthur Senior Flats, a 60-unit senior housing complex along MacArthur Highway.

Plans are moving forward for new rental housing for families and seniors on publicly-owned land on Peoria's South Side. But not everyone is sure the proposal truly fits the needs of South Peoria's residents — or the broader vision for the neighborhood's revitalization.

The Peoria Opportunities Foundation is partnering with Ohio-based Pivotal Housing Partners in applying for 9% Low Income Tax Credits to facilitate development of the 60-unit MacArthur Senior Flats at MacArthur Highway and McBean, and the 47-unit Churchview Garden Homes in the 900 block of South Shelley and South Sumner.

The credits are awarded by the Illinois Housing Development Authority once a year. Wyllys Mann is senior vice president at Pivotal Housing Partners' Chicago office.

"Low income housing tax credits are a scarce and competitive resource, but we're really optimistic that we can secure those funds and bring at least one or both of these projects to the South Side," he said.

Mann said two other developments on a list of preliminary project assessments weren't able to proceed. That includes the 57-unit Hinton Homes and 56-unit Jefferson Avenue Apartments — both also senior housing.

Does South Peoria need more senior housing?

Mann said Pivotal Housing Partners had a third-party firm conduct two studies of the Peoria housing market: one focused on housing for people aged 55 and older, and another for family units.

"Both of those third party market studies found that there was robust demand for not just the units that we're proposing, but, in fact, quite a few more on the South Side," he said.

But to the Rev. Irene Lewis-Wembley, more senior housing doesn't help to address the needs she encounters on a daily basis. She is a board member of Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity (PCCEO), and the director of the Southside Community Center on South Laramie Street.

"I've asked several of my friends, my white brothers and sisters, would you send your family to live on MacArthur? And to be honest, I haven't gotten one person to say yes yet. So I don't know if there's a need," she said.

She said she's helped move eight families out of public housing and into fair market or subsidized housing. But she said home ownership, the ultimate goal, is often out of reach on the South Side, simply because the quality affordable housing stock for families of their size doesn't exist.

"Honestly, we are in a family housing crisis," Lewis-Wembley said.

Jane Genzel of the Peoria Opportunities Foundation acknowledged there's also a real need for more family housing on the market. The problem comes down to dollars and cents.

"There's rarely money available to build homes and have the subsidy that would be needed to build brand new housing, brand new single family homes on the South Side," Genzel said.

She said down payment assistance is available for prospective new homeowners, but in general, securing funds to construct new family housing targeted for home ownership is much rarer than the tax credits for developers building new rentals.

Robin Grantham is PCCEO's community development and engagement coordinator. She's also a member of the Peoria Planning and Zoning Commission, and the mayor's sister. She believes tax credits could be structured similarly to past projects in such a way that at the end of a compliance period, rental housing tenants could purchase the properties and become homeowners.

"There's ways to go ahead and structure to do that it can be a win. That means nobody's against the developer making money for doing that development," Grantham said. "We're just saying, let's make this a win for the community. Let's make this a win for the city. Let's make this a win for all the people involved in the structure."

In a recent interview with WCBU's Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali said there's opportunities for multiple developers to come forward with proposals for the land the city owns on the South Side. She said that includes housing for older people.

"There's a lot of interest, and the 55-and-up senior developments that we have in Peoria are in high demand," she said. "In fact, there's a two-year waiting list for one of them (and) there's a six-month waiting list for another. These types of developments are actually in high demand."

Ali argued it's not an apples to apples comparison to match up the MacArthur Senior Flats against other senior housing complexes on the South Side.

"One of the types of 62-and-up is fully HUD-subsidized, non-tax-paying. This is fully tax-paying, and it has a variety of different apartments — from one bedroom, two bedroom, market-rate cost as well as income based," the mayor said.

But Lewis-Wembley said several other senior housing complexes on Peoria's South Side already have high vacancy rates, and she hasn't seen the data to suggest there's demand for even more, regardless of the difference in qualifications.

"I know Mayor Ali compared to apples to apples. That this is 55 and above, somehow different than B'Nai B'rith and Heartland. But regardless, none of them are full," she said.

Do the plans fit with the city's vision for MacArthur Corridor redevelopment?

Last year, the Peoria City Council approved revitalization plans for both the East Bluff and the Near Southside. In 2019, IDG Architects also drafted a comprehensive plan for the MacArthur Highway corridor which calls for mixed-use developments along the road to spark a revival.

Genzel said both of the plans also address the need for more affordable senior housing.

"There's a lot of other work to be done to address all of the goals and those plans," she said. "This particular development happens to meet three of those goals."

But others question if a senior housing development is truly the best usage of a sizable tract of available land along MacArthur.

"The MacArthur corridor is in close proximity to the Warehouse District," said Grantham. "If there ever is going to be some type of catalyst put in place, it's going to happen in that corridor, in order to bring young professionals into that area."

Grantham said she would have liked to see a request for proposals, or RFP, process, to allow other developers to submit competing proposals for the land.

"Who knows why they would have gotten? They may have still gotten senior housing, but they may have gotten family housing," she said.

But mayor Ali said no one else has stepped up to the plate with an actual proposal. The Churchview Garden Homes and MacArthur Senior Flats represent a potential $25 million into the 61605 ZIP code, Ali said.

"There's lots of opportunity for multiple developers to come in and propose housing development projects, whether they're single family or multifamily, whether they're commercial or multi-use on MacArthur Corridor or various areas throughout the South Side," she said. "The opportunities are there, and so we want developers to come forth and step up with proposals."

Mann said ultimately, somebody has to get the ball rolling on the plan. Once momentum begins to build and people begin arriving, he sees things like grocery stores and other commercial and residential developments coming to the corridor.

"Development tends to beget development and investment tends to beget investment," he said.

What happens next?

Genzel said she expects an announcement on whether funding from the Illinois Housing Development Authority was secured for one or both projects sometime in June. After that happens, Genzel said Pivotal Housing Partners and the Peoria Opportunities Foundation would begin laying the engineering and financial foundation for a spring 2024 groundbreaking.

Lewis-Wembley said instead of focusing on senior housing, money should be used to help seniors stay where they are.

"The priority was to keep seniors in their housing, and those dollars to be spent on roofs and ramps and making the bathrooms accessible and making sure the houses don't become cannibalized because they're on a fixed income now, so that they keep their resale value," she said.

Genzel agreed work needs to happen to help people age in place. But it may be difficult.

"At the state level, they're working on some legislation to be able to use tax credits to rehab homes, rehab ownership homes, but it's currently not available," she said.

The city's land bank is pooling together vacant lots that may be more attractive than individual tracts to developers looking towards housing.

"The South Side is in greatest need of quality, affordable housing. We've been demolishing homes, older homes that were not repairable. The city owns a lot of land now that can be developed," Ali said.

Grantham said perception is also a challenge when looking to address housing needs.

"Peoria has a challenge with affordable housing, because it's almost a bad word," said Grantham.

Lewis-Wembley said she's organizing people and looking to get the MacArthur Corridor plan back on track post-COVID pandemic.

"Poverty ends and begins with housing," said Wembley. "Education, access to economic development, food security and all those things are important, but it really does begin and end (with housing)," Lewis-Wembley said. "I have too many families that are struggling to find housing, living two families in one apartment. One family is split right now. The mom and two kids are living in somebody's spare room. These are our families."

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.