Five years ago, Chicago activists organized to change how millions of dollars could be doled out from a Northwest Side tax program initially designed to prevent white flight.
In 2016, the state law they pushed for took effect. It allowed participants to apply to the fund for home repairs instead. But the cash still hasn’t been made available, and residents are demanding answers from City Hall.
The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program collects a few dollars from homeowners each year. Its origin traces back to the racial fears in many white ethnic communities after Harold Washington became the city’s first black mayor in 1983. White families in this bungalow belt worried that African-Americans would move in and decrease their property values. That never happened. The money was supposed to be used as insurance for homeowners. If the value of the home dropped upon selling, the homeowner could file a cash claim.
Over the years, the equity account has grown to about $9.5 million, prompting affordable housing activists to lobby for a state law that would allow the fund to establish a low-interest home improvement loan program for residents in the district. The amended law took effect in 2016.
“Why the hold up? Here we are almost two years later and we’re still without a new purpose for the fund,” said James Rudyk, executive director of the nonprofit Northwest Side Housing Center, which led the effort to change the law and continues to push for implementation.
Rudyk said he and other advocates have not been able to get answers from City Hall about why new commissioners were not appointed when the law passed two years ago. Neither could WBEZ, which pressed for nearly two months. No one from the mayor’s office would talk with WBEZ on the record or explain why homeowners on the Northwest Side still can’t apply to use their own money for home and neighborhood improvements.
An amended state law that calls for fewer board members goes into effect next year. A city official, who didn’t want his name used, said that they’ll wait until then to make its appointments.
Rudyk said his group was unaware of the pending state legislation, but feels there is some urgency in getting the money back into the community.
“We view this change as another attempt to delay moving forward with appointing community representatives to the board of commissioners to govern the program properly,” Rudyk said.
Money to fix a roof
The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program taxes from about 48,000 homeowners in neighborhoods that include Belmont Cragin, Jefferson Park, Montclare, and Dunning. Fewer than 10 percent of homeowners in the Northwest Side district are enrolled in the program even though all of them pay the tax, which amounts to 0.12 percent of the assessed property value. The executive director of the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program declined an interview.
Cindy Rice, who owns and lives in a two-flat in Belmont-Cragin, said she has a leaky roof — and a host of other expenses.
“It’s like a $3,000 a year increase I’m looking at in medical insurance and property taxes, so where do you get eight grand for a roof in all this?” said Rice, adding that a low-interest loan from the fund would help her financially.
Programs on the Northwest and Southwest sides
Three years ago, WBEZ reported on little-known taxing districts. The other two are Southwest Guaranteed Home Equity Program and the Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program. All three are the result of a state law passed in 1988, backed by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The racial compositions of these communities are now more racially diverse, and the impetus that drove the programs is outdated. The Southwest Guaranteed Home Equity program doesn’t have enough money in its coffers to change its mission because the law says there must be $4 million to make a change. Its total assets are $3.3 million. The Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program began giving out low-interest loans years ago after appealing to the state legislature.
“It really frustrates me when we have something good on the books and it’s not being implemented,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, whose 36th ward includes part of the Northwest Side home equity district. “It has the ability to help some people facing financial challenges. This is a great opportunity to flush it with money.”
He said he plans to send the mayor names and resumes of people who should be considered for the fund’s board of commissioners.