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Venture: Housing group faces a changed world

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The boogeyman haunting the U.S. economy is the housing market, and on Thursday, we get the latest foreclosure numbers. Realtors, construction workers, mortgage brokers have all had to reinvent themselves since the housing bust.

But what if you’re a housing non-profit devoted to helping people achieve homeownership? Their world has been turned upside-down and they’re having to press the restart button, too.

Deborah Moore has worked for Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago for 14 years. She walks down the 7700 block of South Throop Street in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, visibly proud of this block, which Neighborhood Housing Services and the state, the city and other groups worked to turn into a model of green construction back in 2005.

NHS overhauled two brick bungalows here – we’re talking geothermal energy, carpet made out of recycled soda bottles, that kind of thing. NHS advised the homebuyers and lent them the money and, Moore says, produced at least one devoted environmentalist.

"At first he wasn’t really into all of the green stuff," Moore said. "Then he started really studying the geothermal, then he started calling us telling us we didn’t put it deep enough."

Deborah Moore in front of a bungalow NHS rehabbed using green building methods (
Deborah Moore in front of a bungalow NHS rehabbed using green building methods (WBEZ/Ashley Gross)

Fast-forward six years and while the block isn’t decimated, it’s not really thriving either. Next door to the geothermal house is an empty lot. Moore says nearby St. Sabina Church planned to build there, and then shelved the idea. Next to that is a vacant house that looks like a foreclosure, and yet another one a couple doors down. Moore says it’s hard for her to look at this street without feeling discouraged.

"This is the kind of revitalization that we were doing in the late '90s and the early 2000s that just got halted, and now we’re just trying to hold everything where it is until such time that we can start to rebuild again," Moore said.

Ed Jacob says it feels like the organization is playing defense now instead of offense.

He took over as the head of Neighborhood Housing Services last year. Talk about a big job to jump into – his predecessor Bruce Gottschall had been there since NHS started in 1975 as a group dedicated to lending in neglected neighborhoods. And the housing crisis meant blocks NHS had worked hard to turn around were slipping backward again. And NHS traditionally offered counseling to help people buy homes – but not that many people out there can these days, especially in the South and West Side areas NHS serves. A lot of people are out of work or have bad credit from foreclosures stemming from subprime loans.

How has all of this changed what NHS does these days?

"We’re not in a position to tackle the toughest building on the toughest block, where five years ago we would have been able to do that," Jacob said.

He says NHS has shifted a lot of its resources from working with new first-time homebuyers to helping people stay in their homes through foreclosure assistance. But he says that takes a big toll on his staff.

"It’s much tougher on our housing counselors," Jacob said. "Five years ago they were sharing a moment of joy with a family as they got the keys to the home. Now they’re sitting down with people who in some cases are not in a position to stay in their home."

Vacant buildings line this block in West Humboldt Park, an area NHS is focused o
Vacant buildings line this block in West Humboldt Park, an area NHS is focused on (WBEZ/Ashley Gross)

But housing counseling is just one part of what NHS does. The organization lends money and also develops and rehabs homes.

"Anybody who’s been a lender in the last five years in our neighborhoods, anybody who’s been a developer in the last five years in our neighborhoods, and any non-profit in our neighborhoods in the last five years has been in a challenging environment," Jacob said. "We hit the trifecta. We’re all three of those."

So what do you do? Just like lots of for-profit companies and other non-profits, NHS is having to adapt to this topsy-turvy world. Their lending has shrunk by half since 2007. But they prevented 655 foreclosures this year - seven times as many as in 2007.

Still, Jacob says they need to figure out new ways to achieve their mission of revitalizing hard-hit neighborhoods. With that task ahead of him, what keeps him up at night?

"The fact that this is going on a lot longer than any of us thought it would and that it’s deeper," Jacob said. "We have got to make changes and adjust based on that and that’s very difficult for any organization to do. The reason I took this position is because if you want to have an impact in the housing market in Chicago there is no more important organization than NHS, but this is the most challenging time in NHS’s history, in our 35-year history, and it scares me that we may not have hit bottom yet."

As for what NHS plans to do differently, Jacob says they're facing the fact there won't be enough owner-occupants to buy all the vacant homes in Chicago.

NHS says buyers are hard to find for houses like this one in West Humboldt Park
NHS says buyers are hard to find for houses like this one in West Humboldt Park (WBEZ/Ashley Gross)

"We have got to figure out a strategy to work with good investor owners," Jacob said. "It’s a change in strategy that we now accept the fact we have to figure out how are we going to lend to investor owners, how are we going to work with small investor owners on the property management side with issues of tenant screening. We are never going to occupy all the vacant buildings we have in the city of Chicago with owner-occupants."

So it’s a work in progress, this reinvention of NHS. But Ed Jacob says he’s inspired by his employees who remain optimistic they’ll succeed in turning communities around, block by block, eventually.

"You’ve got to find hope in the people who live on the blocks and the people you’ve been working with," he said. "You’ve got to find hope in that, because you’re not going to find it in the statistics, the real estate statistics every month."

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