Affordable apartments in deteriorating communities are in danger of foreclosure and abandonment. Housing developers are discovering the power of community development.
By Carl Vogel
When Turkey Chop, a socially responsible restaurant serving healthy soul food, opened on Chicago Avenue in March, it was one of latest affordable housing initiatives in the impoverished West Humboldt Park neighborhood.
On the South Side, part of the work to protect good affordable housing in Woodlawn is being accomplished by improving schools, exemplified by the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community and a new International Baccalaureate program at Hyde ParkAcademy.
When it comes to ensuring that there is sufficient affordable rental housing for Chicago and the region, many policymakers, advocates and practitioners are realizing that a big part of the equation must be community development.
“Even though we are a housing developer, we figured out quickly that to be successful—for Woodlawn to be successful—we have to go beyond just housing,” said Bill Eager, the vice-president of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and one of the panelists at the “Community Development to Preserve Rental Housing” breakout session.
More than three-quarters of all rental units in CookCounty—and the vast majority of affordable units—are in low- and moderate-income communities, and most of these affordable apartments aren’t subsidized. Those neighborhoods have been hit hard by the economic downturn, and that makes them much less attractive places to live. To ensure the supply of affordable private rental units isn’t decimated by the disinvestment and abandonment that can occur in a disintegrating neighborhood, housing developers are partnering with community organizations.
“The housing side and the neighborhood development side are working together,” said Susana Vasquez, the panel moderator and executive director of LISC Chicago, which has been a leading proponent of a comprehensive model of community development for more than a decade. “That creates a market demand that attracts residents and improves the whole neighborhood.”
In West Humboldt Park, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago is focusing on rescuing buildings on a specific set of blocks that have a high number of foreclosures and vacant properties, but still have responsible owners and are on a handsome parkway. John Groene, NHS’s West Humboldt Park director, knows, though, that the Micro Market Recovery Program’s job of attracting residents is much harder as long as the perception of the community is so negative.
“We can’t do it in a vacuum because convincing people to stay in the community or move in depends on the quality of life in the neighborhood,” Groene said. “A lot of my buyers have said, ‘I don’t want to live near [main commercial strip] Chicago Avenue, because there’s nothing to do there and there are loiterers around.’”
Chet Jackson, executive director of the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, knows that mentality all too well, and he’s working to change it. It’s his organization that bought and renovated the building that houses Turkey Chop—the first sit-down restaurant on Chicago Avenue in years—and did the legwork to recruit its owners. WHPDC’s wide scope of work includes supporting other local businesses, running a neighborhood farmer’s market, operating youth development programs and working with police on public safety.
Jackson and Groene both recognize that their work is entirely symbiotic: Better housing stock means a stronger local community, and improved conditions in the neighborhood attracts homeowners, landlords and renters.
“You can’t have homes without places to shop and eat,” Jackson said. During the session, the ease with which the two explained and discussed each other’s projects clearly illustrated how closely the two organizations work together.
Marketing for a Better Market
A similar dynamic was on display with Eager and Wesley Walker, the executive director of the Network of Woodlawn, which is building local institutions for the low-income community around education, public safety, health and human services. Walker pointed out that the neighborhood dropped from a population of 81,000 in 1960 to 26,000 in 2010, and that the network’s goal of fostering a better quality of life for the current residents depends on Woodlawn becoming a “choice community” that can attract a diverse population.
Although Woodlawn does face challenges, Eager was quick to note that the community’s reputation is not entirely accurate—and that’s a big issue to be overcome. “We have to change the narrative. It’s easy to just say, ‘Woodlawn is poor and there’s a lot of crime,’” he said. “But we’re rich with amenities. We’ve got lakefront property, parks, great transportation access. We’re right next to a major university that has publicly stated it wants to strengthen its bonds with the community.”
Promoting those assets is crucial to attracting residents and investors, including landlords and businesses that bring jobs and shopping options to the community. Leaders in Woodlawn are working to bring major retailers to a large stretch of available property on 63rd street and a hotel close to the University of Chicago campus, for instance.
In WestHumboldtPark, WHPDC is working with North Star Destination Strategies to create a community brand and to market its own assets, which include a 15-minute commute to the Loop, schools like Providence St. Mel and WestinghouseHigh School, and proximity to Garfield Park Conservatory and classic Chicago institutions like Jimmy’s Red Hots.
Walker noted that, in efforts such as these, the goal is to include current residents, especially those living in affordable housing. “The challenge is to attract people with wealth to the community, but not at the expense of the people who currently live there,” he said.
Bringing in new stores and restaurants can seem like a tall task for neighborhoods with low household median income ($27,000 annually in Woodlawn, according the last Census, and $29,000 in WestHumboldtPark, as compared with $47,000 in Chicago as a whole).
But Vasquez pointed out that median income is just that—an average—and many families have more to spend. LISC has documented the millions of dollars that are spent on everything from groceries to appliances every year in similar communities in Chicago and around the country. Jackson agreed and provided a telling example: Wal-Mart provides free shuttle busses that run from Chicago Avenue in WestHumboldtPark to a nearby store to capture the consumer dollars of folks in his community.
“Community development programs kill two birds with one stone,” Vasquez said, as the session concluded. “When you improve schools, for instance, you’re helping local children succeed, and you’re also making the neighborhood a more attractive place to live.”