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Rehabbing vacant buildings, and the lives of those who fix them

A two-flat building in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood was once a neighborhood eyesore.

It was vacant and vandalized, marked with an X for demolition. The tipping point occurred when a young girl was sexually assaulted in the gangway.

"It was a symbol of really what was problematic with these properties across this community," said Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. "Literally you could’ve walked into it at anytime. There was not only drug dealing going on, there was prostitution. Literally the neighbors had to change, then alter their schedules because they were just terrified about what was going on in this building."

That galvanized the community made up of neighbors, priests, imams, and rabbis. For them, the building could no longer remain empty.

IMAN, a social justice nonprofit on 63rd Street went to court and received the home for free from the city. The two flat was then retrofitted and rehabbed by formerly incarcerated men and gives them a place to live.

It’s called the Green ReEntry program.

IMAN’s turning vacant homes into environmentally-friendly dwellings with help from the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs and the Southwest Organizing Project.

The green component includes eco-friendly insulation, preserving rain runoff with buckets and installing ultra-efficient appliances. In the backyard vibrant swiss chard marks a vegetable garden.

Now, the building’s basement will be a community space for block club meetings or other social gatherings. Two families rent apartments in the rehabbed building for below market rate. The goal is to transition them into home ownership.

It’s a rare bright spot in a neighborhood rocked by foreclosures. According to the Woodstock Institute think tank, the rate of long-term vacancy in Chicago Lawn is nearly twice as high as the rest of Chicago.

Taqi Thomas moved in the two-bedroom apartment in July but the smell of fresh paint lingers.

“I didn’t want to fall victim to the streets again so I decided that my best bet was to stay around the muslims instead of going home to my family members. I went to IMAN’s transitional housing,” said Thomas, who served a 13-year drug conviction.

Downstairs from Thomas is Khalifa Tyeiba’s apartment where he lives with his wife and four children.

Tyeiba served time for aggravated battery, and has been out of the criminal justice system for more than a decade.

He said this is what usually happens when he applies for an apartment.

“I paid my debt to society and this that and the other, and they’ll say ‘Oh okay, we’ll get back to you’ and I won’t get a call back. Or they’ll outright say you can’t have a felony,” Tyeiba said.

He estimates he’s been rejected a dozen times in his quest for renting a place.

To help more men like him, IMAN is in the process of acquiring two other nearby homes for the Green ReEntry program.

“And so to come here in a community, a decent community I see things getting done,” Tyeiba continues. “My son goes to school right across the street. Beautiful.”

Tyeiba says he can finally relax a bit. There’s no longer the X on his back.

Nor on the building on south Fairfield Avenue.

is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. Email her at nmoore@wbez.orgFollow Natalie on Google+,  Twitter

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