CHICAGO, ILL. - The Near North Apartments takes a bold stand in a neighborhood once dominated by the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project. Near North was rising as Chicago’s old housing projects were coming down, signaling not only a change in the city skyline but also a shift in attitude.

“The location is ground zero for public policy,” said Cindy Holler, executive director of Mercy Housing Lakefront. The nonprofit organization developed the single-room occupancy (SRO) project, opening its doors to 96 residents this year.

Near North is a sleek five-story building made out of glass, steel and concrete. It was designed by renowned architect Helmut Jahn, whose involvement has brought attention to the building and raised the profile of affordable housing.

“I wanted to do the Near North SRO project because affordable housing need not be of lower standard and lesser quality,” Jahn said earlier this year. “Designed with different goals and spirit, this project aspires not only to contribute to the lives of the users but also to improve the quality of the city.”

Built on a former brownfield site, the $18 million development emphasizes sustainable design. Near North is projected to use up to 22 percent less energy than traditional systems. That would yield about $18,000 in annual savings, money that could be spent to help pay for a case worker or for other purposes.

Sixteen roof-mounted wind turbines produce an estimated 10 percent of the building’s electricity. Solar panels produce heat for the building’s hot water supply. Near North also boasts of having Chicago’s first graywater system, which reuses runoff water from the sinks and showers to flush toilets.

The units feature large windows, with picturesque views of the city. “Who said only wealthy people get a great view of Chicago?” Holler said, noting that the development is shattering all the negative notions about affordable housing.

Near North’s story is not just about the building but also about the people inside. About half are formerly homeless and/or disabled residents, while others are former public housing residents whose buildings have been torn down, Holler said. Most residents have incomes below 30 percent of the AMI.

Near North brings housing and services under one roof. On-site case managers and services are on the first floor, and the upper floors hold the apartments. Many of the residents have struggled with physical and mental illness, substance abuse, limited education, and poor work history.

The project was getting a new name: the Margot and Harold Schiff Residences.

Funding included LIHTCs from the Chicago Department of Housing, which generated about $6.9 million in equity. The credits were syndicated by the National Equity Fund. The Illinois Housing Development Authority provided $2.5 million in HOME funds and $750,000 from the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The city provided $1 million in tax increment financing money. About $400,000 came from HUD’s Supportive Housing Program.

The monthly contract rent for all units is $560. Residents pay 30 percent of their incomes. The average that a tenant pays is $149. More than 300 people are on a waiting list to live at Near North.

Additional project information, as provided in application by the nominator.

Q. Why does the nominated project deserve to be recognized based on the award criteria of this contest?

A. Near North Apartments opened in March 2007 in a Chicago neighborhood formerly dominated by the Cabrini-Green housing development. In recent years the community has begun to rapidly gentrify, leaving little affordable housing for those who need it most. The city of Chicago selected Mercy Housing Lakefront (MHL) to construct a single room occupancy (SRO) building in this area, as part of the mayor’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The Near North Apartments now houses 96 formerly homeless and very low-income adults, many of whom contend with physical and/or mental disabilities.

Near North was also developed on a former brownfield site, a type of property that often sits vacant because it contains hazardous waste and other contaminants. By cleaning up and redeveloping the brownfield site where Near North Apartments now sits, MHL has helped to protect the environment, and returned valuable property to public use.

Q. How does this project represent an innovative solution to a specific development challenge?

A. Many people who are homeless or economically poor suffer from severe health problems, most commonly upper-respiratory issues. The Near North Apartments is unique in its incorporation of several sustainable design elements, which help not only to house people, but to give them a healthy living environment. MHL also helps bring attention to Chicago’s need for safe, affordable housing for all its residents. At the same time, the building contributes to the city’s larger goal: to set an example for the rest of the country in responsible construction and use of our resources. Near North is projected to use up to 22 percent less energy than traditional systems, which represents up to $18,000 in savings on an annual basis. Near North’s green energy systems will pay for themselves within 16 to 18 years. Sixteen roof-mounted wind turbines produce an estimated 10 percent of the building’s electricity, or about 3,000 kilowatt hours per year. The innovative, helical design of the wind turbines is specialized to take advantage of the winds, and to work quietly and safely on a rooftop setting.

Forty solar collectors, also placed on the building’s roof, provide heat for the building’s hot water supply. The solar heat is transferred from panels to a heat exchanger mounted on a 1,2000-gallon storage tank, which preheats the water before running it through the pipes to showers and sinks. The Near North Apartments is also equipped with features that help the building draw less water from the city’s supply. With the first gray water system in the city of Chicago, runoff water from sinks and showers is collected, filtered, and reused to flush toilets. The building also uses rainwater cisterns to capture rain during storms and store it for landscape irrigation.

The sides of the building feature highly insulated metal panels, and window systems of high-performance, low-emittance glass. This glass is coated with a microscopically thin metallic later that reflects radiant hear. In the winter, heat from inside the building is reflected back outside, keeping the building warmer. In the summer, heat from the sun is reflected back outside, keeping the building cooler.

Many household finishes, from paint-strippers to wood finishes, paint, carpet-backing, and plastics, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs vaporize over time, entering the atmosphere and contributing to headaches, asthma, fatigue, and other symptoms sometimes known as “sick-building syndrome.” At the Near North Apartments, finishes are kept to a minimum. Whenever possible construction materials are exposed and incorporated into the building design. Where paints and stains are used, low-VOC products are tapped to the greatest extent possible.