Brian Boyle has created a little backyard paradise. His home is in the Dunning neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. There’s a pre-fabricated deck, lounge furniture and a swing that his wife claims as her own.
“We absolutely love it. We’re out here all the time,” Boyle said. He also got a new air conditioner and hot water heater with a $20,000 loan at a two-percent interest rate from the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program, a group dedicated to neighborhood stabilization that has undergone a transformation in recent years.
Several years ago, WBEZ investigated a controversial tax program created more than 30 years ago. It was designed to prevent white flight on Chicago’s Northwest Side. But that never happened and the program ended up a dormant organization flush with millions of dollars in unused cash.
Housing advocates organized to change how that money would be doled out. They successfully changed a state law, but then it took years for the law to take effect. Now there’s a new executive director, a revamped board and a fresh mission statement. The new program offers loans for repairs, maintenance, remodeling or other improvements. There’s zero interest for loans up to $10,000.
“Anytime one of my friends or somebody in the neighborhood says they’re doing some kind of remodel, I always try to turn them to this. I haven’t found a flaw with it yet,” Boyle said.
Here’s how the program works: All homeowners in the designated district — which includes parts of the Dunning, Jefferson Park, Belmont Cragin and Montclare community areas — pay a small tax of about $8 a year that shows up on their property tax bills. That money goes into a fund, and homeowners voluntarily enroll in the equity program for a one-time fee.
Previously, the program only gave money as an insurance, if there was depreciation in a home’s value when it was time to sell. The program was started in the 1980s out of fear that a new Black mayor — Harold Washington — would mean lower property values in the mostly-white bungalow belt on the Northwest Side. That didn’t happen — and the fund swelled to more than $9 million.
Ivy Ellis is the program’s new executive director. She said about a dozen households have received loans through the program.
“One family wanted to redo their windows. And they were able to find these particular stained glass windows, and were able to replace their windows with the stained glass windows. Some other modifications I have seen are people have built out their basement or gotten a furnace,” Ellis said. “There’s not really a limit on what they can do to improve their home. The only thing you can’t do is tear down your home and build a new one.”
For years, the Northwest Side Housing Center lobbied state lawmakers to change the assurance program into a resource that didn’t waste taxpayer dollars.
“We’re glad to see that the program is up and running, and that it’s helped folks,” said James Rudyk, the center’s executive director. But he says the program needs to do more than offer renovation loans.
“What we saw during the pandemic, and what we’re still seeing is that not only are folks at risk of eviction and foreclosure, but there’s also a real issue with people being able to pay their property taxes, particularly older adults, those that are disabled and people of color,” Rudyk said.
So this summer, state lawmakers passed a bill that amends the Home Equity Assurance Act. The amended law makes it possible to give loans to homeowners with delinquent property tax payments. That change takes effect in January.
Now the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program board of directors has to approve it. Ellis says they are excited to move forward with the new change.