Ministry sells property on Robinson Court

CHAMPAIGN – Any home sale is a coup in this market, and Restoration Urban Ministries was relieved to get this mortgage off the books.

The Christian-based homeless ministry sold its property on Robinson Court – five duplexes, four homes and an empty lot near Washington and Russell streets – to a local developer for $650,000 on Dec. 1. The asking price was $1.2 million, the appraised value, when the property was listed in October 2007.

But the sale still allowed Restoration to pay off mortgages on that property and its offices on Parkland Court in Champaign, giving it much-needed financial breathing room, said Pastor Ervin Williams.

"We took a loss, but it eliminated all of the mortgage debt that we had," he said.

Restoration still owed about $650,000 for the Robinson Court property, which was used as collateral when the ministry bought the offices on Parkland Court. The agency also had to take out a $15,000 loan last month to cover back taxes on Robinson Court.

The buyer, Chris Saunders, is owner of Green Street Realty. He plans to continue renting the homes to seniors and working families, and may redevelop part of the property into new senior housing. He's still talking with city officials about zoning and other issues.

"It's a great location, so that was attractive to me. You can secure an entire little neighborhood there. It's basically a city block," he said. "It definitely needs work."

The buildings provided transitional housing for working families ready to move out of the Restoration Inn shelter.

Two tenants have moved out since the sale, but most remained, said Derry Chatman, the former landlord who still lives on Robinson Court. Tenants were worried about the sale, but Saunders has tried to help them through the transition, she said.

Tenants who are Restoration employees used to work off part of their rent each month, Williams said. One household paid $400 of the $550 rent, for example, and worked off the other $150. They now have to pay the full amount to Green Street Realty, so the ministry adjusted their wages accordingly, he said.

"If we couldn't figure out some way that we could work this out, I wasn't interested in selling the property. That is my first priority, the residents living out there," Williams said. Chatman, who works at Restoration's food pantry, said she used to allow tenants struggling with their rent to pay half on the first of the month and half on the 15th. Saunders let tenants do that the first month, to catch up, she said.

The company also immediately replaced a furnace that went out just before the sale, and responds quickly to maintenance issues, Chatman said.

"Our goal is to keep the people in place," Saunders said.

Saunders is refurbishing several of the yellow-brick duplexes and applied for city matching funds to do a "complete remodel" on two houses.

Sheila Dodd, Champaign's grant compliance coordinator, said the city can provide a 50 percent match up to $14,999 for each house, depending on the amount of work required.

She's awaiting a report from building safety inspectors but said the decision should come in the next few weeks. In exchange, Saunders must rent to families earning less than 50 percent of median family income, or about $28,150 for a single mom with two kids.

Saunders also hopes to tear down a vacant house and shed at 1306 W. Washington St. and build affordable senior housing, or perhaps apartments for low-income families.

"We do have a lot of elderly people who already live out there," he said. "I hope to put something nice there that'll benefit the neighborhood."

Dodd said the city needs affordable senior housing.

"He's trying to do something different on that corner. I hope it comes to fruition."

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