Should Empty Homes House Chicago’s Poor? | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Should Empty Homes House Chicago's Poor?

It seems like another lifetime, but just a few years ago, Chicago neighborhoods faced a tsunami of condo conversions. That wave—plus the demolition of public housing towers—left many of the city's poorest people struggling to find a place to live. Now the foreclosure crisis has displaced tens of thousands more Chicagoans, and left empty homes in their wake. A lot of people see a new opportunity to revive neighborhoods. But there's also fear that people most in need will be squeezed out of this chance for housing.

For almost a year, Tisha Canada and her three kids have packed into her mom's Humboldt Park apartment on the city's West Side.

ambi: kids sounds

Six adults and four kids live here, sleeping in the two bedrooms, on the couch and on a mattress in the living room. Canada had her own apartment until last year. But like lots of tenants throughout the city, she lost it because the building went into foreclosure. She found out by opening some mysterious mail from a law office.

CANADA: You know, why does this keep coming with lawyer's name on it? And the paper said foreclosure on it, like a little stamp was on there. And I took it to the alderman, Emma Mitts, and I was like, 'What should I do in a situation like this?' And eventually, they cut the lights off.

When the gas went off a month later, Canada moved out. But finding another place to rent has been tough. She can't afford much – she's on dialysis and gets a $900 disability check every month. She got on a waitlist last year for a subsidized housing voucher but says they told her it would take three to eight years.

CANADA: That's too long for me. I don't have stable housing right now. That's still a long wait, three to eight years.

Meanwhile, the building where she lived sits vacant, and it's one of more than 5,000 empty, foreclosed buildings in Chicago right now, according to the real estate research company Trulia. So here's the irony—homes sit empty while people like Tisha Canada double up with relatives or even become homeless. No surprise, lots of people are making plans for those empty, foreclosed homes, but their goals can compete, and even clash.

LUDWIG: I'm Katie Ludwig, with the city of Chicago's department of community development and I work on our neighborhood stabilization program.

Ludwig's standing at the corner of Kimbark and 70th street in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. It's a tidy block with new homes and some small apartment buildings. But scattered among them are empty, boarded up buildings.

LUDWIG: The more vacant and abandoned properties on a block, the less the people who are currently there and have been there for years and are good, responsible property owners want to be there, they see, 'Oh, maybe I should get the heck out of here,' this neighborhood isn't going anywhere, so to speak.

And that's exactly what Ludwig wants to avoid. The neighborhood stabilization program she mentioned, that's how the city got $55 million from the federal government. And here's where the competing goals come in: do you use that money to fix up buildings and sell them? Or do you turn them over to non-profits to run as rentals?

City officials say to keep neighborhoods healthy it's important to attract homebuyers who will put down roots. But advocates for low-cost housing say what's really needed is affordable rentals, especially in these tough economic times. Ludwig says the city will spend about a third of the federal money buying properties to convert to rentals. But she says to do more than that would mean the money wouldn't stretch as far.

LUDWIG: To serve the lower incomes will require a larger subsidy and will mean that we do fewer units. So there's a balance that is tough on all sides and one that we are constantly paying attention to.

Those working with poor families insist the balance must tip in another direction.

ARUGUETE: The first day we had over 1,000 applicants and we were all like, 'Oh my god.'

Joy Aruguete directs the non-profit low-income housing developer Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. In May, when they opened up their waitlist for 450 apartments, more than 5,000 people showed up over five days. People started lining up before dawn. Tamale vendors showed up. Aruguete says it was the biggest turnout she's ever seen.

ARUGUETE: It never let up. Not on one day did it let up.

Tough economic times—combined with people displaced by foreclosures—mean that the need for inexpensive rental housing right now is crushing. It's a new crisis, but it exacerbates a shortage that's existed for years. A DePaul University study from last year found that Cook County lost 116,000 affordable rental units from 2000 to 2007. They define affordable as renting for less than $795. The study predicted that another 32,000 would be lost by 2020.

The recession now makes it hard to predict what will happen. Rents may decline as condos become rentals, but demand for the cheapest housing is increasing as people lose their jobs. And Aruguete says building new low-income housing is tough because of the credit crisis.

ARUGUETE: It's a very challenging environment right now to try to create the kind of affordability in the housing stock that I think is needed.

That's why Bickerdike has applied for the next round of federal neighborhood stabilization money. They plan to buy foreclosed buildings in Humboldt Park and turn them into lower-cost rentals. But even if they get the money, that won't happen until next year. Meantime, the crisis has gotten so bad that now some homeowners are taking matters into their own hands.

JACKSON: Oh, she's here.
HOPSON: Hi.
JACKSON: Miss Hopson! Surprise!
HOPSON: Surprise.
JACKSON: Actually, sorry to interrupt you…

Kim Jackson from the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation has just dropped in on Janice Hopson in North Lawndale. Hopson bought a two-story home in this southwest side neighborhood in 2005 and uses it to run a non-profit to help homeless youth. She says she's watched with dismay as buildings emptied out, then got boarded up all along her street. But then, looking at a shuttered apartment building, she says inspiration struck.

HOPSON: I didn't know it had went into foreclosure until the boards started going up, and then I thought, I said, that would be a good project, a good community project, right there. We could house 10 families and we could create some jobs for people as well.
GROSS: I mean, you weren't feeling, oh depressed about it, you thought, oh!
HOPSON: It was an opportunity. Actually, I got really excited about it, you know. I was like...I had even started talking to some of the men, I was like, 'What do you do?' He was like, 'Oh yeah I can do drywalls and I got some experience working on roofs' and so I realized these men had some skills.

Hopson has never run an apartment building before. That's not the only challenge, she also has to get a loan, rehab the building, make sure it's up to code and find responsible renters. Lawndale Christian Development Corporation is trying to connect her with a local bank. Hopson says she's confident it will work out and she'll do a better job than the last owner, who let the building fall into the hands of drug dealers.

HOPSON: Because I have an interest in this community, not just in my little space here, but I want to see this whole community come up.
 
But this project is still in the dream phase, and other city and developer-led efforts to create affordable rentals out of foreclosed buildings are still months if not years away. That all comes too late for Tisha Canada and her three kids. Canada says she's given up on finding an apartment in Chicago that she can afford. Just last week, she left her mom's crowded apartment and moved to Minneapolis.

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