By John Rice
"Seniors need security and companionship at an affordable price," declared Phil Moeller, the developer spearheading construction of Forest Oaks, at 7228 Circle Ave. Moeller is a man with an intriguing past and an innovative method for financing affordable housing for seniors. Moeller chose the Forest Park site for reasons dating back to his childhood friendships. When it is completed, it will be his eighth such building for independent-living seniors in the Chicago area.
Moeller grew up in Ecuador. His father attended Notre Dame University, where he met his future wife, who was secretary to university president Theodore Hesburgh. After graduation, the young couple moved to Ecuador. When Moeller was 13 years old, they returned to the states to give Moeller an American education.
They settled in Oak Park and sent him to Ascension School as an eighth-grader. Moeller didn't speak a word of English but "met a lot of crazy fun friends." One of these is Frank Kevil. Moeller later purchased the property the restaurateur owned on Circle Avenue for construction of Forest Oaks.
After graduating from Ascension, Moeller attended Oak Park and River Forest High School and went on to graduate from Northern Illinois University with degrees in Political Science and International Relations. He returned to Ecuador while working for an international firm that assigned Moeller to a territory in South America. He didn't care for the travel and loneliness of the job and moved back to Oak Park.
Moeller and his brother formed a real estate company and owned and operated apartment buildings in the village. Once they had a tenant who was behind on her rent, so Moeller paid her a visit. She was a tiny elderly woman, he recalled, who had one piece of furniture, her bed. She felt isolated from the other tenants in the building, who left each day for full-time jobs. She also could not keep up with her rent. Moeller's encounter with the woman spurred him to develop affordable senior housing that promotes a sense of community.
His first development was completed in 1987 in Michigan, where he pioneered a creative way to finance it, securing tax credits from the federal government and selling them to corporations to reduce their tax liability. The federal government had started the tax credit program in 1986 to provide funds for developers to construct affordable housing. To finance Forest Oaks, Moeller secured a tax credit awarded by the Illinois Housing Development Authority and sold the credits to a corporate investor.
Moeller was the first developer in Illinois to use tax credits to construct senior housing. He built his first development, Gurnee Meadows, in that far northern suburb. "At first, people thought I was crazy," he said. "Now everyone's on board." Moeller's corporation, Carefree Development LLC, went on to build developments in Lake Zurich, Hoffman Estates, St. Charles, Elmhurst, Homewood and Schaumburg. His daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, are the financial managers of these developments. They screen applicants through personal interviews and credit checks.
Moeller noted that 80 percent of seniors are living on fixed incomes, consisting of Social Security benefits and savings. A small percentage receive pensions. Many live on incomes in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. The incomes of Forest Oaks residents will range from a minimum of $15,000 to a maximum of $43,000.
Moeller said they had 250 applicants for the 56 units. Many were attracted by the reasonable rents. Monthly rent for the 32 one-bedroom units range from $720 to $780. Rent for the 24 two-bedroom units is from $880 to $1,020. Besides screening applicants, Moeller's daughters oversee a resident manager, maintenance supervisor and an activities director at each facility.
Forest Oaks is conveniently close to shopping districts in River Forest and Oak Park and within walking distance of the Green Line for trips to the Loop. There's even a nearby pharmacy for filling prescriptions.
To further address the health needs of residents, Forest Oaks will be affiliated with DK Healthcare, a home health service organization. The organization will have an office in the building, staffed by health professionals, who will assess the mental and physical health needs of residents. Services include skilled nursing care for residents who suffer a short-term health problems.
Moeller sees Forest Oaks as an asset to Forest Park. After he chose the site, he purchased a portion of the property from the Stutz family, who own and operate Circle Lanes. His contractor tore down Kevil's and Culligan Water to create space for the project. The architect is Kim Smith, who can walk to the worksite from her home in Oak Park. She designed a 5-story building that has its main entrance on Marengo Avenue. It has two underground garages with 46 parking spots.
The ground floor will house a full-service restaurant. It will be "Kevil's-like" in quality but Moeller's boyhood buddy will not be involved. The restaurant will be open to the public and offer discounted meals to Forest Oaks residents.
Moeller received great cooperation from village officials to obtain the necessary construction permits. "I never worked with a village that is so pro-development," said Moeller, "I can't say enough about Steve Glinke and Tim Gillian."
The construction crew broke ground on Nov. 18, 2018 and immediately faced severe weather. "Winter killed us," Moeller recalled. "Then in spring it wouldn't stop raining." They had pumps working 24/7 to remove the groundwater. After the weather moderated, they made rapid progress and hope to begin occupancy in January.
Forest Oaks is more than a building. It will be a community, featuring an array of services for its residents. These include grocery delivery, laundry service and weekly housekeeping. In addition to a continental breakfast, there will be special meals, like "Pizza Night" and "KFC Night." Besides activities, such as exercise classes, craft-making and games, there will be day trips to local attractions.
The development will also contain a sorely-needed feature for Forest Park: a banquet space to host weddings and other large gatherings. Forest Oaks replaces a vacant parcel of property with a vibrant community for the 55-and-over crowd. Moeller hopes it will be a win-win for residents and developer alike.