Case Study

Miriam Apartments in Chicago

6 min read

A Bright Place for Those Formerly Without a Home

Fifteen years ago, residents of the historic Miriam Apartments in Chicago got together to create a grand mosaic, a bright and beautiful therapeutic work of art that symbolized the positive aspects of what living there meant to them.

Unfortunately, that mosaic did not survive the gut rehab that has turned the single-room occupancy (SRO), Miriam Apartments into permanent supportive housing for those formerly without a home. However, the spirit of the mosaic survives in stunning partial recreations spread throughout the building facilitated by designer Architreasures.

“We wanted to give people who live there a vibrant atmosphere that reinforces that they have worth and dignity,” according to Mark Angelini, president of Chicago-based Mercy Lakefront Housing, the project’s owner and developer. “The colors and the lighting resonate with elements of the building.”

Good futures could well be possible results for the 66 residents of the Miriam, as their SRO units with shared baths and communal kitchens have been replaced by small studios with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes courtesy of a $20.5 million rehab by Mercy Lakefront Housing. Key new amenities, like central air conditioning, also have been included.

And as a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) project, all of the women displaced by the year-long construction had the right to return to the building. Going forward, Fair Housing Act regulations about units with their own bathrooms means that men will also be tenants for the first time.

Lasagna-Layered Financing
The “lasagna” (many-layered) financing has constructed an extensively reworked building that, through careful planning, continues to serve 66 residents as before, even with the expansion of all the units.

“It’s a good outcome,” says Angelini.

Financing layers include nine percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits, State Tax Credits, an AHP grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, Federal Historic Tax Credit equity, private philanthropy from the A. Montgomery Ward Foundation and the John and Kathleen Schreiber Foundation, and a seller’s note.

Other partners in the rehab include consultant the Lightengale Group, MacRostie Historic Advisors, construction firm Linn-Mathes and architect Landon Bone Baker.

Miriam Apartments, a four-story brick building, is one of six Northside Chicago SRO projects Mercy Lakefront owns planned to go through this kind of update, says Angelini. Two more, the Major Jenkins and the Carlton, are in process, with the rest to follow, says the president.

“We haven’t missed a beat,” Angelini says, noting the Miriam Apartments rehab was finished in the first month of the pandemic, with a careful move-in completed last August. “We have a good groove and a rhythm going.”

Supportive housing services for the residents are focused on an intensive relationship between case manager and client, Angelini says. Medical care (both physical and mental), art therapy and tenant leadership are emphasized.

The objective is successful life management (a comprehensive assessment looking at 19 or 20 different factors of cognitive, behavioral and physical health is made for each tenant) and housing stability. Many tenants have remained at the Miriam for ten years and longer, Angelini says, while others have moved on to new opportunities and other types of housing.

Financial counseling is also offered to the residents, who are very low-income at an average of $9,000 a year across Mercy Lakefront’s portfolio. “We work to provide individuals coaching and support to help them understand how to save money, how to make the best use of dollars beyond what they are contributing to the rent,” he says.

Angelini is gratified to see tenants who take charge of their lives after the stability provided by a place like the Miriam Apartments.

Mercy Lakefront has even started a Community Health Worker program that has hired five of its supportive housing residents to essentially be case managers to help newer residents that have the same kind of issues, such as addiction, that the long-standing residents have overcome.

Built in 1925 as senior housing and with a long and varied history (it was a soup kitchen at one time), the building was acquired by Lakefront SRO in 1991, and was the first facility of its kind in the state when it changed the orientation to women unable to find places to live. It is named after Sister Miriam Friday, an advocate for those experiencing homelessness in Uptown Chicago.

The building has not had a substantial update since 1991; Mercy acquired the building in 2006.

Mercy Housing Lakefront is a Midwest affiliate of the nationwide Mercy Housing, serving Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

CNDA for Best Affordable Rehab
The project recently received an award from the Chicago affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corp (LISC). The Miriam Apartments was given the Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award at LISC’s 2021 Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards for best affordable housing rehab.

Deborah Bennett, senior program officer of the Polk Bros. Foundation, who chaired the committee that gave the award to the Miriam Apartments, says a big factor in the award decision was that the building is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The Foundation valued the way the project has preserved affordability. And since the building is historic, it has architectural elements that blend in with the neighborhood, helping to diminish the NIMBY factor.

“The building looks like any other building Uptown,” she says.

Bennett says she was impressed by the way Mercy Lakefront Housing had hired a relocation specialist to make residents’ transitions away and back easier, noting they had frequent and transparent communications with them throughout the process. Also, there was no break in social services, she notes.

In addition to the upgrades to the units, Bennett notes an upgrade to the elevator, as well as the heating/cooling system. She also mentions the first-floor supportive service spaces, fitness center and computer room. “It’s about dignity,” she adds. Having separate baths and kitchenettes “is all part of living with dignity.”

Bennett says she likes the fact that the residents were invited to give input into the project at an early stage, including at a design charette.

The result, she says, including the mosaic reconstruction, “makes the spaces very inviting.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.