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A Jesuit College Preparatory Experience

Students Advocate for Affordable Housing in Wilmette

On Tuesday, April 10, the Village Board of Wilmette unanimously voted to approve Cleland Place, a new 16-unit affordable housing development at 1925 Wilmette Avenue, the site of the old American Legion. Loyola Academy Justice Seminar seniors Emily Molins and Merrill O’Shaughnessy, along with classmates Kaela Finnegan ’18, Grace Harlan ’18 and Lilly Wehman ’18, were instrumental in the approval process, presenting research and personal testimony that helped inform the Board’s decision—the first significant victory for affordable housing efforts in Wilmette.
“It was a great example of our students becoming civically engaged and playing a pivotal role locally in making a difference,” says Loyola Academy Director of Ignatian Service Learning Timothy J. Martin, PhD. “We are really proud of them, and they are excited about making a difference by connecting their service with our class curriculum to become agents of change.”

As part of their Justice Seminar capstone project, which challenges students to identify a need at a community organization and design a project to addresses that need, the group decided to advocate for affordable housing in Wilmette and partnered with Evanston-based nonprofit Connections for the Homeless—a social services organization that seeks to provide comprehensive support for homeless individuals including shelter, meals, healthcare, counseling, skill-based training and more.

Early in the semester, students met with Sue Loellbach, manager of advocacy at Connections. They learned about Connections’ new initiative called Joining Forces for Affordable Housing, a coalition that advocates for affordable housing solutions to support people in need specifically in North Suburban Cook County and the North Side of Chicago.

A key goal of this initiative was to advance the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation’s (HODC) proposal for Cleland Place, affordable housing intended for individuals and families with annual earnings of approximately $35,000. In addition, the proposal designates that a number of 16 units will be reserved for veterans and persons with disabilities. HODC is a real estate developer with a successful history of affordable housing units in the Chicagoland area.

“We met with Ms. Loellbach, and then began researching everything we could about the building developer, the project and how it would all fit together in Wilmette,” explains O’Shaughnessy.

The group was careful to research the concerns and issues at the forefront of the opposition’s platform. “I was disappointed with the amount of misinformation out there, and how unwilling some individuals were to understand that affordable housing can help Wilmette’s most underpaid,” says Harlan, who explained that some of the top concerns were traffic during rush hour, a decrease in nearby housing values and a lack of public transportation for residents.

“The stigma around affordable housing and the issues of class and race historically tied to it seem to frighten people,” furthers O’Shaughnessy.  
On Tuesday, March 6, Molins and O’Shaughnessy attended the Wilmette Plan Commission meeting where the planned unit development (PUD) for 1925 Wilmette Avenue sought preliminary approval and special use to permit.

“We sat in the meeting and watched how the proceedings unfolded,” says Molins. “If anyone in the audience is a Wilmette resident, they said we could go up and say something. So I went up in favor of the development. I said it’s important to practice what you preach. And this is an opportunity for Wilmette to step up.”

With an eye on the April Village Board Council meeting, the group turned their research into a presentation, crafted a flyer presenting the benefits of the development and organized a meeting with some of the Wilmette trustees.

“We camped out at Panera for literally seven hours so we could meet with the trustees individually,” says Molins. “We explained why, particularly as students at Loyola Academy, this is an important cause. There is a lot of stigma about affordable housing. Especially as Jesuits, we are expected to work with those on the margins. The trustees were receptive to our message. It was convincing them to stop saying ‘later’ and take action now.”
At the Village Board meeting on Tuesday, April 10, Molins again spoke and reiterated many of the same points. “I said that it’s our duty to change the negative connotation associated with low-income housing,” she says. “Part of that process is better integrating diversity into Wilmette and allowing for more access to affordable housing.”

“Emily’s communication skills served her very well,” says Loellbach. “Emily spoke at both the Plan Commission meeting and the Board of Trustees meeting, giving a coherent and impactful statement each time.”

This time O’Shaughnessy also addressed the Board, advocating in support of Cleland Place by citing differences between it and a building in Evanston with a similar concept that had been used by the opposition as a negative example.

As a result of the meeting on April 10, the Village Board granted approval to 1925 Wilmette Avenue for approval of a Planned Unit Development Preliminary Plan and Special Use to permit the constriction of a multifamily building containing approximately 16 affordable rental apartments.  

“We were lucky to be a part of the first success in a previously challenging 30-year battle for affordable housing in Wilmette,” O'Shaughnessy reflects.

“While Cleland Place is just one small step, it is still a step toward breaking down the stigma and building a more inclusive community,” says Harlan, acknowledging that there is still a long road ahead to combat persistent lack of access to affordable housing and to address the lingering question: What is next?

In response to the Village’s decision, Connections for the Homeless Executive Director Betty Bogg wrote in an April 18 email to supporters: “We applaud the citizenry of Wilmette, the Village Board and the Plan Commission for setting an example for how a transparent public process can build the momentum needed for a project like this to take root. The work done by students at Loyola Academy should also be acknowledged. These inspiring young people advocated directly to the Village Board, presenting research and personal testimony in support of this development—and it made a difference.”  

Emily and Merrill stood out as particularly effective advocates who helped to bring support to Cleland Place,” saysLoellbach. “They impressed me in a couple of ways in particular. First, was their interest in advocacy strategies and their quickness in learning that a multilevel approach was needed. Then, I was also very impressed with their execution. In spite of crazy schedules and time pressure, they scheduled meetings with several of the Village trustees, prepared for those meetings and then conducted them, all while on spring break and having to travel. In this particular time of activism, the voices of high school students have particular resonance. It takes courage to do what Emily and Merrill did, but it also takes conviction that they have voices that need to be heard and pride in their actions to make things right. I believe that their participation made a difference and helped to create the overwhelmingly positive response of the trustees.”

In early May, Molins, O’Shaughnessy, Finnegan, Harlan and Wehman presented their finished project in class and discussed the importance of being active community members and their impact on the community. They will do so again at the program’s Community Partner Lunch on June 1, which will feature a student-partner panel discussing the process that led to this great example of student civic engagement.

“The mission of Loyola is to form women and men for others. Part of that is going out into the world and asking for change,” says Molins. “It’s one thing to learn about issues and another thing to apply that knowledge to the real world. This unit could be a gateway to developing more access to affordable housing. It’s a small start, but finding ways to act, even on a small scale, is important. There’s always an opportunity to have a voice and speak out.”

“It’s so different to discuss broad justice issues in a classroom compared to seeing them play out in your own neighborhood,” adds O’Shaughnessy.

Molins will attend Stanford University in the fall and intends to stay active in social justice issues. She plans to study math or public policy. Next year, O’Shaughnessy is headed to Duke University where she will study biomedical engineering and hopes to stay involved in social justice work.

The Justice Seminar course is part of Loyola’s unique lineup of Ignatian Service Learning classes that take the service experience into the classroom—enabling students to learn about social justice issues in academic courses across the curriculum, apply their new knowledge to real-life situations through community service and then engage in reflective exercises, discussions and projects to process the experience.

Our Mission

To form women and men for meaningful lives of leadership and service in imitation of Jesus Christ through a college preparatory education in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition.
Loyola Academy admits students of any race, color and national origin or ethnic origin.