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To Rebuild in This New World, Start with Neighborhoods

30 December 2013 - Crain's Chicago Business     

This guest op-ed from LISC Chicago Executive Director Susana Vasquez was published by Crain's Chicago Business on December 30, 2013, in response to its special report, "Reckless Abandon."

Susana Vasquez is executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Chicago, a nonprofit community development organization.

Gordon Walek

Housing foreclosure is a pernicious issue that impacts Chicago as a whole and, most acutely, its low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Crain’s special report, “Reckless Abandon,” outlined the grim statistics: a 22 percent increase in vacant homes since 2010. In neighborhoods like Englewood and Back of the Yards, one in six homes stands vacant.

Yes, the market is recovering in some communities, with Chicago-area home sales in September posting the best year-over-year gain since 2005. But in other neighborhoods, where values have dropped 75 percent or more since 2006, the way back will be long. From Little Village to South Chicago, foreclosures, gun violence and struggling schools create interlocking challenges that hold back economic development.

It’s a daunting situation, but foreclosures won’t kill Chicago. We are a city of deal-makers and innovators. We can address this problem by re-envisioning how to keep our whole city strong and “rebuild in this new world,” as Marshall Brown of the Illinois Institute of Technology so eloquently put it.

As executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. Chicago, I hear every day how private and nonprofit developers find creative ways to advance real estate developments in tough markets; how neighborhood leaders build safety strategies with local police commanders; and how parents and community organizations advance innovative approaches to improve local schools.

At a recent convening of more than 100 LISC neighborhood network leaders representing more than 20 Chicago communities, participants prioritized the issues they most want to influence. The top issue was housing, followed closely by education and safety. That’s not surprising. To build a stronger housing market and drive economic development in the entire region, we need safer neighborhoods with better schools.

What is surprising is that we have yet to mobilize the necessary resources and civic backing to develop new, comprehensive neighborhood strategies. Fresh commitment is needed to engage community leaders, develop ambitious, data-informed plans and kick-start their implementation.

This is no small challenge. Choosing which blocks to save and which to let go is hard work. More difficult still is figuring out how to weave together the physical and social remains of communities that have experienced dramatic population loss, housing vacancy, and school closures.

WHERE DO WE START?

Ultimately, we have to start with people. The most effective way to reach and inform Chicago residents – to engage them in this rebuilding effort – is through trusted neighborhood-anchored institutions. Given the right set of technical and financial resources, local organizations are capable conveners, planners and implementers. Rather than react to the last school closing or the next street shooting, a strong neighborhood group has the power to convene its constituency, facilitate forward-looking planning meetings and, with a shared vision and set of strategies, respond to both the challenges and opportunities in that community.

Bringing hard facts and actionable data to the table is also essential to foster pragmatic planning and new policies. But without the participation of informed neighborhood leaders, most efforts will fail for lack of the local knowledge and buy-in that are central to effective community development. Citywide groups like LISC can help make sure local plans aggregate up into citywide impact and get to some economies of scale by coordinating cross-community interventions that emerge from the local planning.

The good news is that Chicago is ready. The city has a viable framework for targeted planning and investment in its Chicago Neighborhoods Now program. Academic institutions have the data skills to inform neighborhood planning – from DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies to the University of Chicago’s Harris School and its growing team of data scientists. Cook County’s Land Bank is gearing up. And as I listen to our neighborhood-based partners, I hear a readiness to think boldly, use data and build power to change the trajectory of this city by first changing the trajectory of our neighborhoods.

Susana Vasquez is executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Chicago, a nonprofit community development organization.

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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