Community Groups Push A Bold Idea To Revitalize Some Chicago Neighborhoods

Vacant lot in 1300 block of South Albany Avenue in Chicago’s North Lawndale community
Vacant land owned by the City of Chicago in the 1300 block of South Albany Avenue in North Lawndale. Housing advocates say the city should donate thousands of empty lots for new home construction. Linda Lutton / WBEZ News
Vacant lot in 1300 block of South Albany Avenue in Chicago’s North Lawndale community
Vacant land owned by the City of Chicago in the 1300 block of South Albany Avenue in North Lawndale. Housing advocates say the city should donate thousands of empty lots for new home construction. Linda Lutton / WBEZ News

Community Groups Push A Bold Idea To Revitalize Some Chicago Neighborhoods

In the early 1980s in East Brooklyn, New York — with New York City still on the precipice of bankruptcy, abandoned property everywhere and residents fleeing — a coalition of churches got the city to award them a huge tract of vacant land.

East Brooklyn Congregations started building single-family, brick homes there — 1,100 of them between 1983 and 1987. They dubbed them the “Nehemiah homes” after the biblical figure who led the effort to rebuild Jerusalem.

“I was blown away by it,” said Richard Townsell, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, who visited the Nehemiah homes in 1995. “I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to emulate what’s been done in East Brooklyn.”

Now, a coalition of community groups, including Townsell’s, has a bold proposal to address decades of abandonment and disinvestment in Chicago neighborhoods using a similar strategy.

They want to build 1,000 new-construction, single-family homes on the city’s West Side, and 1,000 more on the South Side. They’re asking for hundreds of free, city-owned vacant lots to kick off the effort and to keep the cost of housing down. They say quickly building a critical mass of homes is necessary for real neighborhood revitalization to take place, and they’ve caught the attention of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and city officials, who seem intrigued by their idea.

For decades, many of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods have been marred by vacant lots and abandoned buildings. They’ve been losing population. And even decades-long efforts by community groups have not reversed overall trends.

The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation has built homes in North Lawndale — 100 of them. But Townsell says “it pales in comparison” to what’s happened in East Brooklyn. “They’ve built 4,000 homes for working people and 2,000 apartments over 30 years. It just transformed the neighborhood.”

A New York Times article once said the Nehemiah homes made the community “a neighborhood of hope reincarnate.” The groups involved continue to build houses today.

Many North Lawndale residents have been waiting a lifetime for that kind of neighborhood transformation; parts of the West Side were never rebuilt after the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, decades of disinvestment has followed — and it continues today.

WBEZ reported recently that financial institutions are barely lending in communities like North Lawndale, keeping vacant lots empty, pushing property into further disrepair, and hampering residents who want to invest in their communities.

Townsell said the goal is to build single-family homes “for people that make $45,000 a year combined family income.” The idea is to sell to existing neighborhood residents; organizers say 40% of Nehemiah homebuyers in East Brooklyn came from nearby public housing developments.

“And so now, 30 years later, you have folks that have equity. They’ve built wealth, but more important, it’s not just about the housing,” said Townsell. “You have homeowners associations that now have the political muscle to deal with other things — and they’ve built schools, they’ve built a million square feet of commercial in Brooklyn.”

‘You need critical mass to rebuild community’

Community developers are taking one key lesson from East Brooklyn. “From the start, the focus was on scale,” said Amy Totsch, lead organizer with United Power for Action and Justice, the coalition group pushing the plan.

Totsch says plans must be big enough to truly transform a place, and pull communities out of a cycle of deterioration, crime, sinking property values and abandonment.

“You need critical mass to rebuild community. You cannot rebuild a community where there are hundreds of vacant lots and only do 10 homes,” said Raul Raymundo, executive director of the Resurrection Project, the community developer planning to lead the effort to build 1,000 homes on the South Side, starting in Back of the Yards and moving south toward Englewood.

Both the Resurrection Project and Lawndale Christian Development Corporation are part of United Power for Action and Justice.

“We want to preserve population, repopulate these areas, and make sure these vacant lots become assets instead of eyesores,” said Raymundo, whose organization helped construct more than 125 new-construction, single-family homes on city-owned vacant lots in Pilsen in the 1990s as part of the city’s now defunct New Homes for Chicago program.

Raymundo wants the homes to cost less than $200,000, and city and state subsidies could bring that price lower. He said the construction of 1,000 new homes would happen in phases. However, it’s unclear just how long the effort would take. Almost no details have been worked out yet, but the Resurrection Project has a prefab starter home in the Back of the Yards area where they hope to begin.

Building lots of homes at once brings down the cost of construction due to economies of scale. A home builder can lay hundreds of foundations at a time, for instance. And flooding an area with homes — and families interested in buying them — can change the market, pushing banks to lend where they haven’t in the past.

A big ask

United Power’s entire plan hinges on a big ask. The community groups want city-owned vacant lots for free. According to city records, Chicago owns some 14,000 vacant properties, including nearly 950 in North Lawndale, 965 in New City, 1,375 in Englewood and about 1,075 in West Englewood.

Screen shot of city-owned vacant lots in New City, Englewood and West Englewood
The City of Chicago owns some 14,000 properties across the city, most of them vacant lots. This June 29, 2020, screen shot of a map of Chicago’s city-owned land inventory displays portions of the New City, Englewood and West Englewood communities. In all, there are more than 3,400 city-owned lots in those three communities. City of Chicago
Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara has said in the past that she’s open to the idea of giving away city-owned lots for single-family homes. Before taking over the city’s Department of Housing, she authored a report that called for a “New Homes for Chicago 2.0 program.” And she seems to agree with the notion that something big is needed.

“Programs that the city has done before — the most they’ve done in one community might be 100 homes in one effort. And we’re really hoping to go to an exponential level,” Novara said, adding that the city must do more to spur development and homeownership in neighborhoods that have been neglected.

“We can’t just sit back and say: ‘Well, when there are properties, people will buy them and banks will lend, and it’ll all just take care of itself.’ We’ve seen over and over that that’s not the case. And we’ve got to step into a more proactive role,” Novara said.

Vacant lots are not the only thing the groups will be asking the city for, says Townsell.

“It’s got to be fast. We got to have permit fee waivers. We’ve got to have all of the underground work that you’re going to do for Lincoln Yards or The 78. They’re going to give them sites that are ready,” said Townsell. “We want the same thing in our neighborhoods.”

A thousand homes need a thousand homebuyers

In addition to building homes, the organizations involved will need to find thousands of people who are willing and able to buy them, said Joe Neri, CEO of the community development institution IFF. Neri worked at the Resurrection Project in Pilsen when that group was building homes there.

“The challenge of building a thousand homes is a two-sided coin,” said Neri. “Building homes is one side of the equation. You have to have qualified buyers on the other side of the equation.”

That means organizations will have to do lots of homebuyer education, said Neri. That includes working with renters to help them save for a downpayment or to improve their credit scores so they can easily qualify for a mortgage. Neri said groups will also need to work with banks and lenders to create mortgages that fit the project and to get their commitments to provide such loans.

Neri said building 1,000 homes in a community will change perceptions of the area — and it will actually change the area, attracting lending that may not exist now.

Richard Townsell, Denita Robinson and Amy Totsch
From left to right, Richard Townsell, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation; Denita Robinson, North Lawndale Homeowners Association; and Amy Totsch, lead organizer with United Power for Action and Justice, the umbrella organization calling for 1,000 new homes on Chicago’s West Side and 1,000 more on the city’s South Side. The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation would lead development of the new homes on the West Side. Linda Lutton / WBEZ News
Denita Robinson sees no lack of potential homeowners in her neighborhood. Robinson graduated from North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School in 2003. Afterwards, she went to college and then came back and bought a home. She says her classmates want to buy but can’t find suitable properties or loans.

“We have a multitude of graduates who want to come back here, who want to come and be the change the community needs to see. But the opportunities are not here for us,” she said.

Robinson said she had to fight to become a homeowner in North Lawndale. It was a two-year saga for Robinson to finally buy a two-flat right around the corner from her grandmother.

She said many properties in the neighborhood are in poor condition. It’s hard to get a mortgage in the community. Speculators sit on properties.

“So then my friends that are ready to purchase, they have to leave what they call home. We’ve invested our entire childhood in this community, and we want to show the new generation of kids that we come back home,” Robinson said.

She’s now a leader with the North Lawndale Homeowners Association, and she’s pushing for the idea of building 1,000 new homes in the community. She can imagine her classmates and others buying there.

“Those thousand homes creates opportunity and resources for our community to grow and be what we’ve always known that we can be,” said Robinson.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton