Variance for Valparaiso affordable housing project ends in tie vote; project may get another chance in July
Dozens of people shared their thoughts about two proposals for affordable housing, both backed by Project Neighbors, at a Valparaiso Board of Appeals meeting.
While the board went on to vote in favor of the variances for one of the projects and tie on the second, the story of one Valparaiso resident’s struggle resonated through both portions of the meeting Tuesday, which stretched more than three hours.
Jamie Carter has been a teacher at Northview Elementary School for 11 years and lives in Valparaiso. Recently divorced and raising two young children, she wants to remain in the city so her children can continue to be involved in the community and can attend the district where she teaches. “This project is very important to our community,” she said during discussion for a five-unit apartment at 206 Monroe St. “It’s hurtful to hear that maybe I’m not enough to invest in,” Carter said, fighting back tears. “There are a lot of people in this community who would benefit.”
The lot, at two-tenths of an acre, falls short of the 2.5-acre requirement for such a building. A request for a variance on that requirement, as well as one to allow seven parking spaces instead of the required 15, drew an assortment of concerns from those at the meeting, though many speakers also said they supported the need for additional affordable housing in the city. The project called for three-bedroom, two-bathroom units that would rent for $700 to $800 a month. Beyond concerns about a lack of parking and shoehorning the building into a small lot, speakers also worried that granting the variances set a precedent for future projects.
“You are now setting a new standard for the city,” said Valparaiso resident Kenard Taylor, who objected to the Monroe Street project but went on later to throw his support to studio apartments at 908 Franklin St., a project that received its requested variances. “Should the city ordinance change rather than going before the BZA?” Taylor continued.
Board member Ryan Wright, along with board president Michael Micka, voted against the variances for the Monroe Street project. Wright said the board didn’t have the authority to make the change. “But in my heart, we all want cheaper housing,” Wright said.
Board members Melanie Trowbridge and Diane Worstell voted in favor of the variances but the vote tied because Byron Martin, also a Project Neighbors board member, recused himself. The matter will carry to the next BZA meeting for another vote, without a public hearing, because of the tie.
Fifty socially distanced chairs were set up at Butterfield Pavilion for the meeting, though a handful of people stood along the wall. People also gathered at the each of the three doors left open during the meeting.
A Project Neighbors/Housing Opportunities partnership for 16 studio apartments on a commercially zoned lot at 908 Franklin St. drew fewer complaints, even with a reduction to 17 parking spaces of the required 24, and the use of commercial property for residences. That project, said attorney Ivan Bodensteiner, would prioritize housing for men and veterans, adding that similar projects over the past few years prioritized women.
Some speakers called the proposal a “homeless shelter” and noted the industrial past of the lot and possible environmental concerns, but officials said the property was clean and others added that the studio apartments would be rentals, not a shelter.
Rich Schmidt, the pastor at Living Hope Community Church, said his church is next to Caroline’s Place on Calumet Avenue, a similar property focused on women. “We’re thrilled they’re our neighbor,” he said, adding there haven’t been any problems and many of the residents work or are retired and receiving Social Security. “It’s not a homeless shelter.” He added that he lives downtown and takes his two toddlers to Tower Park, near the proposed apartments, and that he doesn’t have any concerns about who might live in the apartments. Schmidt also said that many of the residents of Caroline’s Place don’t have cars, so parking shouldn’t be an issue for the apartments.
“I want to set some facts straight,” said Paul Schreiner, executive director of Project Neighbors. “This is not a homeless shelter. This is a rental unit and it is a rental unit that will be managed by two longstanding organizations.” Additionally, he said, neither sex offenders nor violent offenders would be allowed to live there and those with substance abuse problems would have to go through treatment first.
The board voted 4-0 in favor of the variances, with Martin again recusing himself. “It’s a great property and it makes a lot of sense. I totally agree with the need for affordable property. It has to be the right place,” Wright said. “It makes sense. You’re not going to have any problems.”