The City of Chicago got $169 million from the federal government to tackle blocks blighted by foreclosure. That might sound like a lot, but not when you think about all the homes that have gone into foreclosure – they total about 100,000 since 2006.
City officials say you can’t help all neighborhoods at once or you’ll have no impact at all.
So their new approach is to zero in on nine small areas, dubbed "micro-markets," and do everything possible to bring them back from the brink.
That includes knocking on doors on a very warm St. Patrick's Day, trying to help homeowners prevent foreclosure.
That's exactly what John Groene and Nita Hailey-Gamble of the non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago did recently. They're trying to help people work out loan modifications with their banks.
"Our goal is not one more owner-occupied home lost to foreclosure," Groene said.
Groene and Hailey-Gamble know just about every house in the 32-block micro-market in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood.
They’ve walked up and down the streets lined with brick two and three flats and small bungalows, counting all vacant properties: 123.
They know how many foreclosures were filed here last year: 37.
And they’re pretty sure they know how many of those are occupied by owners: 8.
So today, they’re visiting those homeowners.
They find Cesar Maldonaldo sitting on his front porch, shaded from the warm sunshine. He had promised Hailey-Gamble months ago that he would drop by the NHS office to get some assistance modifying his mortgage, but he never came.
So Groene and Hailey-Gamble appeal to him and his partner, Maria Perez, once more.
"All our assistance is free. What we do is help you apply to your lender to see if they’re willing to lower your payment to a point where you can afford it and escape foreclosure," Groene said.
Perez twice asks how much it costs. Groene and Hailey-Gamble keep telling her it's free. They say that's one of their big challenges - convincing homeowners they're not scam artists out to swindle them.
Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago has teamed up with the city to resuscitate a few select neighborhoods coping with derelict, boarded up buildings.
But what the city has learned is that you can’t just focus on vacant buildings.
You have to prevent other ones from becoming vacant in the first place.
You need to keep people like Cesar Maldonado and Maria Perez from moving out the minute a default notice arrives.
So the city is trying to blanket nine micro-markets, mostly on the south and west sides, with help to reverse the wreckage of the housing crisis.
They’re trying to keep people in their homes, rehab and sell empty ones, crack down on building code violations and make the neighborhoods safer.
Lawrence Grisham is overseeing the city’s effort. He says this approach is a recognition the city has a big problem and not enough money.
"We can’t do everything everywhere," Grisham said. "Let’s focus our resources, let’s focus our activities and try and make this spot better."
The city’s experimenting with lots of ideas – including using money from special taxing districts known as tax-increment financing areas to subsidize the rehab cost of homes when banks won’t lend.
And the MacArthur Foundation has pledged as much as $20 million.
The city is trying to incorporate what it's learned from past efforts to stabilize neighborhoods. In a previous story, we explained how the city's initial approach of fixing and selling single-family homes and two-flats hasn't really worked. So the city has instead been buying big, multi-family buildings out of foreclosure to turn into affordable rentals.
Katie Ludwig works on foreclosure mitigation for the city. She says they want to kickstart the real estate market.
"What we’re trying to do is try to make the area more attractive for private investment," Ludwig said. "The market isn’t functioning quite as well as we want in all these areas. So what do we need to do to address that and get that private market functioning again?"
But housing activists are frustrated by the slow pace of help coming to these chosen areas and other places with problem houses.
On a quiet block on the city's northwest side, in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, Vanessa Valentin walked to the back of a vacant house and showed how the basement door was wide open.
"That's what causes problems in the neighborhood and why people don't feel safe," Valentin said.
The basement is strewn with trash. Drywall has been yanked off and litters the floor.
Valentin works for the non-profit Northwest Side Housing Center that serves the neighborhood of Belmont-Cragin – which includes one of the micro-markets.
Michele Rodriguez Taylor heads the housing center. When she heard last summer that her area had been included, she was thrilled.
"When Belmont-Cragin was listed, we were all in the office just like, `Yes, yes, we’re on the list, we’re going to get some help,'" Taylor said. "But that hasn’t happened yet."
Grisham of the City of Chicago acknowledges the pace has been slow. He says it takes time to do this right.
"Part of doing it right is making sure that we’re setting up the community structures to really make this ongoing," Grisham said.
He said the city wants to make sure it has the right strategy so that it can replicate it across the city later on. And housing experts applaud the city for being deliberate.
But activists like Valentin and Taylor want things to move faster. They took me to one home littered with garbage and reeking of urine. The windows were broken, the boards had been pulled off the door. A filthy pink couch sagged in the backyard.
We could see a pair of jeans hanging upstairs - indicating that people were living there. And then, indeed, two people walked out of the home while I stood there recording.
Four days later, the home went up in flames, and two people inside died.
The house was not in a micro-market area.
It just shows how desperate the situation is in many neighborhoods – and how big a task the city is facing.