Residents, officials work to improve Evergreen Terrace

By Gus Bode

Sure, residents admit there are some problems.

Playground equipment is rusted, paint is peeling and cracked on cinderblock walls, and there is leaky plumbing. But for many residents, Evergreen Terrace remains a godsend.

The student-family housing complex, located on West Pleasant Hill Road, is comprised of 38 two-story cinderblock buildings, with 304 unfurnished apartments. Built in 1968 with the help of a mortgage loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the property and its residents are feeling a University-wide budget pinch.

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There simply isn’t enough money to go around, and it is increasingly difficult for housing officials to keep up with maintenance on the aging facility. There is a backlog of orders to paint and prepare vacant apartments, no money to fix a broken merry-go-round and rising utility costs and HUD regulations threaten the complex’s free after school program.

Despite the unanswered needs, residents and housing officials are proud of Evergreen Terrace. Officials call it the hidden jewel of SIUC and residents, such as Shari Blanke, a parent of two, say they couldn’t find a more diverse, safe or inexpensive place to live. Evergreen Terrace’s residents come from more than 50 different countries.

“People tend to think this place is a dump, but it’s not,” said Blanke, a pre-law student who has lived at Evergreen Terrace for a year and a half. “Every community has problems. Here, my kids are getting an education at the same time I am. Their friends are black and white and Japanese and Korean, and they don’t see a difference between them. That is something you can’t pay enough for.”

Seeing eye to eye

Problems are not new at Evergreen Terrace. When Ed Jones, director of University Housing, first came to Carbondale in 1988, it was in a state of disrepair. For years, residents had fought against rent increases; therefore, he said, maintenance on the property was neglected.

To revitalize the family housing complex, rent increased at the rate of inflation, and a $1.2 million grant was secured from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fix what was broken.

Two decades later, the complex is once again facing maintenance problems and the after school-program is in jeopardy, and this time residents and housing officials are working together to secure the future of the unique community. But sometimes, working together isn’t always easy.

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On Sept. 1, rent for a two-bedroom apartment at Evergreen Terrace rose to $413 per month from $393 last year. Rent for a three-bedroom apartment rose to $446 per month from $425.

The rate increases irked some residents, including Marinus Van Kuilenburg, who has lived at Evergreen Terrace with his wife and two children for more than three years. Van Kuilenburg, originally from the Netherlands, said many could not afford the seemingly minimal increase because most are graduate students, single parents or international students on fixed incomes.

In response, Van Kuilenberg and others formed the Evergreen Terrace Tenant Union to approach housing officials about rent concerns and maintenance issues. The first meeting in October between the two groups was often explosive, as union members and other residents complained Evergreen Terrace had been neglected for years.

They wanted broken playground equipment fixed, an explanation for the backlog in maintenance orders and a reason why rent was increasing and amenities were not.

They argued that since the facility was not traditional student housing located on the main campus, they were treated as second-class citizens. Others disagreed with union members, saying they were asking for too much.

Jones and other officials said while many of the residents’ concerns were valid, issues surrounding property maintenance and amenities were complicated.

He had tried to reach out to residents in the past, he said. But after the housing complex’s last organized tenant group, the Evergreen Terrace Residents Association, went defunct a decade ago, it was difficult to get residents to attend meetings that dealt with many issues about which the union is now complaining.

That group worked with officials in the 1980s to have speed bumps installed in the parking lots following concerns about children’s safety.

Though emotions boiled over at the union’s first meeting in October, subsequent meetings have been tame. Union members say housing officials have been receptive to requests and problems, even reducing the amount of time required to file intent-to-vacate notice from 90 days to 60 days, a major sticking point for the group.

“Overall, I guess, yes, I am happy with the way things are going,” said union president Marinus Van Kuilenburg, a political science graduate student. “A lot of the major issues we were upset with are being worked out, but there is still a need for an organized student voice. Not having that is what I think caused a lot of the problems and discontent with residents in the first place.”

Jones and Lisa Marks, the housing official who oversees Evergreen Terrace, have said they hoped residents such as Van Kuilenburg are willing to work with them for the long term, as budget restrictions across the University, state and nation may force rent rates higher. Evergreen Terrace operates on about $1.6 million a year, and when all is said and done, officials say they expect to be in the red.

Complicating the issue, the $1.2 million grant awarded by HUD to fix up Evergreen Terrace in 1988 is now being considered a “loan” and housing officials will have to have to figure out how to pay it back while maintaining affordable rates.

“We realize the pressures and restrictions many of you are under,” Jones said at a recent meeting. “Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is you are the ones absorbing all this while still trying to pay for school and work when financial aid is being cut.”

Evergreen Terrace is the only University Housing complex in the United States that operates under Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines. However, it is not subsidized housing, so the guidelines primarily regulate how money can be spent within the facility.

All rent increases must be approved by HUD and the Board of Trustees. Last year, HUD rejected rent increases because the organization said services were not being increased to justify the raise, Jones said. Since rates could not be increased, maintenance on the aging facility suffered.

To untie their hands, housing officials would like to purchase Evergreen Terrace outright from HUD within the next two years. Originally, the mortgage on the property was due to be paid in full in 2009.

But the University doesn’t want to wait.

Southern Hills, a family-housing complex that dates to the 1950s, is set to be destroyed in the next few years. Additional apartments will be added to Evergreen Terrace so all family housing will be in one location.

Furthermore, funding for the complex’s after school program will have to be re-worked, and it is possible it may be cut all together. The program is funded with a combination of the monthly Campus Housing Activity Fee, which is $3 a month per student who lives at Evergreen Terrace and bond revenue fees.

However, HUD recently told officials the program could no longer be funded with bond revenue fees, and officials are now scrambling to figure out how to save the program.

“This is something the residents are going to have to help us on,” Jones said. “They will have to decide to eliminate it, or what they will pay to save the program.”

Started in 1988 by resident Jamie Corr, the after-school program serves children ages 5 to 18. Volunteers and student workers help children with homework, challenge them in basketball and soccer games and, most importantly, provide a safe place to hang out.

Corr now runs the after-school programs and various other community events and groups, including barbecues, a Girl Scout troop and a 4-H club.

She still lives at Evergreen Terrace, long after finishing her degree as a community aide. The children she raised there have grown up and moved on, but she keeps her doors open all day or night.

Though her official title is community aide, many of the after school program children call her grandma and their parents call her mom. The shelves in her office are lined with hundreds of Do-It-Yourself craft books, and she has learned to run the community programs on a shoestring budget, recycling anything and everything.

“I just really love what I do,” Corr said through happy tears. “It’s so much fun to see smiles all the time, to make people happy, it gives me the energy to keep going.”

A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Though tough decisions still face residents and housing officials, many said the renewed communication between both groups has done more than fix leaky faucets and remove broken playground equipment.

Van Kuilenburg said forming the union, despite the disagreements with officials, countless hours passing out fliers and knocking on doors, has made him more aware of the sense of community blossoming at Evergreen Terrace.

He said since forming the union, people are buzzing with ideas on how to improve their community, even if they don’t always see eye to eye.

For Stephanie Watkins, it is that sense of community that makes Evergreen Terrace special. The single mother raising two children while majoring in paralegal studies said she is proud to raise her children at Evergreen Terrace.

The facility falls under the Unity Point school district, one of the best in the state, and she doesn’t have to worry if her children are safe when they play outdoors.

“I love it here,” Watkins said. “I have lived in a lot of apartments, dealt with a lot of landlords, and none of them are as cooperative or willing to help as housing people are here. I think this place is a little misunderstood. People don’t know we are out here, but we are, living our lives and making things work.”

Reporter Monique Garcia can be reached at [email protected]

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