In 2015, Tiffany Stevenson ran into a city council candidate at a Jamaican restaurant in the Ashburn neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
At the time, Derrick Curtis was running for 18th Ward alderman, and Stevenson asked him about his plans for a controversial taxpayer-funded program intended to prevent white flight from a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods in the 1980s. Stevenson said Curtis promised to look into the program.
But almost eight years have lapsed since that encounter, and Stevenson is still waiting for her local elected officials to weigh in on the Southwest Guaranteed Home Equity Program (SWGHE) that has stockpiled almost $4 million since its creation.
SWGHE is one of three such Chicago programs that were created under a 1988 Illinois law out of fear white homeowners would flee the city after the election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.
The programs on the Southwest and Northwest sides are funded by nominal property taxes collected from every homeowner in their respective districts. Those who enroll in the program by paying for an appraisal of their home are offered a guarantee: They won’t lose money if they hold on to their homes for at least five years before selling, even if property values fall. That’s unless the reason prices decline is an economic recession.
These districts were borne out of fear that home values would drop as Black and brown people moved into certain neighborhoods like Stevenson’s. But the impetus behind them is now outdated, which is why Stevenson and other neighborhood residents are questioning why this program is still up and running while its director and four commissioners remain on payroll.
SWGHE held its last public meeting in 2020, according to the program’s website, and has not updated its board meeting schedule since. SWGHE officials did not respond to an interview request or comply with a public records request made by WBEZ.
On a recent Friday, the front door of SWGHE’s office was locked. Stevenson does not recall when she last saw the office open to the public.
“I don’t have an issue with the program per se, other than why it was created,” Stevenson said. “But my point is, if you’re going to keep doing it, do it right. If you’re not, then just get rid of it.”
Stevenson wants the program to use its money to give Greater Ashburn residents low-interest loans for home repairs. If not, she wants to see the home equity association dissolved.
In a booth at a diner not far from the office, Stevenson placed a thick manila envelope on the table filled with handwritten notes, newspaper clips and printouts of the program’s financial reports over the years — proof that she’s spent a decade trying to talk to local officials about reforming SWGHE without any luck.
She looks to the Northwest Side for inspiration where organizing has been successful. The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program (NWHEAP) was revamped under state law so its stockpiled funds can be distributed for no-interest or low-interest home repair loans to residents. A new director and board were brought in.
Now, NWHEAP is also offering grants to residents who are delinquent on their taxes, said James Rudyk, the executive director of the Northwest Side Housing Center, which led efforts to change how the NWHEAP fund worked.
“At the time we thought, ‘what if we could get rid of the white flight aspect of the program and instead focus on supporting homeownership in the community, which is what the program was meant to do?’ ” Rudyk said.
Some residents in NWHEAP’s service area, which covers Belmont Cragin and parts of Jefferson Park, have used the money to fix up their roofs or backyards. Those who were behind on their property tax bills were able to apply to NWHEAP’s delinquent tax program and also get access to financial coaching through the program’s $9.9 million fund.
The third tax program is the Southwest Home Equity Association (SWHEA) and it has about $15 million in the bank. Its boundaries expand as far west as Garfield Ridge and east as McKinley Park.
Executive director Victoria Gaspar took over five years ago and is leading the change. She said she’s had to grapple with the program’s discriminatory origins. But the opportunity to help the members of her community build generational wealth by investing in their homes has far outweighed that, she said.
Last year, the program approved more than 1,000 home repair loan applications ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 with little to no interest rates.
“There’s just really nothing like this program out there in the city,” Gaspar said.
This is the kind of community support Stevenson imagines for Ashburn.
But there’s a caveat: State law says only home equity associations that have levied more than $4 million in taxes can start such loan and foreclosure prevention programs. SWGHE had about $3.9 million in its coffers as of 2021, the latest year for which financial reports are available.
Ald. Curtis is aware that the program is at the cusp of this threshold and told WBEZ he’s keen on the idea of turning it into a resource for the community. But Curtis didn’t share a timeline.
He said his constituents should talk to “their state representatives about changing the legislation” and consider joining the seven-member commission of SWGHE.
Stevenson has considered this. She retired last year after 32 years in the field as a Cook County probation officer and said she has nothing but time on her hands.
“I’m willing to drive to Springfield to talk to people,” she said. “I just don’t know where to start.”
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program (NWHEAP) and the description of its delinquent tax program.