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Reclaiming Southwest Chicago

As Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan walked toward the intersection of West 62nd Street and South Washtenaw Avenue, Ticina Edwards rushed out her front door and extended her hand.

“I love my home,” she told Madigan.

It was a satisfying moment for the attorney general.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan talks to Chicago Lawn residents on a recent walking tour to assess how far the neighborhood has come since being ravaged by foreclosures during the economic downturn.

Paolo Cisneros

Madigan had walked this same block alongside scores of Chicago Lawn residents midway through 2012. At that time, the building that would become Edward’s home was boarded up and surrounded by overgrown weeds and piles of trash. Houses up and down the street were equally neglected; the victims of a foreclosure crisis that gutted this Southwest Side community.

On this day, however, the run-down buildings and eerily vacant streets felt like a distant memory to the more than 300 neighbors who joined Madigan on her walk.

They had come together to celebrate the completion of the first phase of Reclaiming Southwest Chicago; a strategic effort seeded by LISC to rebuild a stable and vibrant community in the wake of one of the most difficult periods in Chicago Lawn’s history.

The locally-driven effort has so far surpassed expectations.

“It’s a 180 degree difference,” Madigan said as neighbors described the various property acquisition and rehabilitation projects that have so far been completed. “You can tell there’s hope and vitality in this community whereas four years ago there was hope but not much vitality.”

Reclaiming Southwest Chicago is a collaborative effort headed up by the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Brinshore Development and United Power for Action and Justice. It began with $700,000 in support from LISC’s Testing The Model (TTM) initiative which was funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Those funds, spent on planning, staffing, data collection and technical support provided Reclaiming Southwest Chicago with the infrastructure required to leverage additional resources. 

“Our support of Reclaiming Southwest Chicago is a great example of how strong neighborhood organizations can take on new areas of work with LISC’s support of planning, staffing, technical expertise and data infrastructure,” said Meghan Harte, LISC Chicago’s executive director. “Reclaiming Southwest Chicago has changed the trajectory of the housing market in Chicago Lawn. It’s a powerful statement for what can be achieved in Chicago neighborhoods.”

As an indicator of how the foreclosure crises affected Chicago Lawn, each red dot on this map, prepared in 2008 by the Southwest Organizing Project, represented a foreclosed or vacant property.

In the four years since its launch, Brinshore and SWOP have rehabilitated 50 housing units in the phase one target area between 51st Street, California Avenue, 63rd Street and Rockwell Avenue. Another 50 were restored by local contractors as a response to new signs of neighborhood vitality sparked by the campaign.

All told, the number of vacant structures in the target area has shrunk from 93 to 21. Organizers say that number will reach zero by the end of 2017.

This upgrade in the built environment has been accompanied by improvements in quality of life determinants. Property values and school performance metrics are up while violent crime is down.

With the support of several organizations — including the Attorney General’s office — Reclaiming Southwest Chicago has succeeded in empowering residents to make these and other strides toward the holistic revitalization of their community.

A Neighborhood in Crisis

The streets of Chicago Lawn are lined with handsome bungalows, elegant courtyard buildings and sturdy oak trees on neatly manicured parkways.

In recent decades, the working class neighborhood came to be known as a place where families of all backgrounds could establish solid economic footing and begin the process of building better lives. But the economic crisis of 2008 and the wave of foreclosures that followed threatened to undermine Chicago Lawn on physical, social and economic levels.

Between 2005 and 2011, more than 30 percent of local housing units saw at least one foreclosure filing, according to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. Additionally, one in six housing units was vacant for more than two years.

As the neighborhood emptied out and lending activity decreased, those who remained were left to deal with struggling schools, increasingly dangerous streets and a sputtering local economy.

Vacant properties on selected Chicago Lawn blocks in 2012.

For many neighborhoods, the cumulative effect of these circumstances would have been a death knell. But luckily for Chicago Lawn, SWOP had spent more than two decades cultivating deep relationships between religious congregations, schools and other local institutions.

In this time of crisis, these networks were uniquely suited to begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming the neighborhood.

Reclaiming Southwest Chicago

The Reclaiming Southwest Chicago campaign is a coordinated effort by SWOP and its partners to repair both the physical and social damage caused by the foreclosure crisis.

With more than 30 member institutions representing more than 30,000 people, SWOP is highly skilled at developing and executing strategic campaigns aimed at building local power. But they also needed expertise in the complex art of housing development in order to truly reverse the neighborhood’s trajectory.

That’s where Brinshore Development came in.

Brinshore is a private development company with a proven track record of revitalizing neighborhoods using a variety of funding tools. Having articulated a desire to help revitalize Chicago Lawn, the company teamed up with SWOP to create a joint-venture development entity that is carrying out the initial phase of redevelopment.

As the agencies were fine-tuning the details of their arrangement, Attorney General Madigan and several other state attorneys general successfully secured a settlement from the banks responsible for the foreclosure crisis.

Vacant properties on the same Chicago Lawn blocks following the efforts of Reclaiming Southwest Chicago.

All graphics courtesy of the Southwest Organizing Project

Madigan chose to invest $3 million of Illinois’ portion in Reclaiming Southwest Chicago. Her contribution provided the campaign with much needed early momentum and the ability to begin aggressively acquiring and rehabbing properties.

Having cultivated a long and productive relationship with SWOP, LISC Chicago also contributed funds and expertise. Additionally, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago worked to identify potential renters and buyers for the newly rehabbed properties.

The brick-and-mortar improvements to the neighborhood have coincided with community initiatives headed up by SWOP and United Power for Action and Justice — an organizing cohort that draws members from across the Chicago region.

Among others, these include efforts to prepare local leaders to become buyers and renters; organizing contractors to acquire and rehab other vacant properties; supporting programs to improve local schools and expanding access to health care.

The result has been a campaign that addresses Chicago Lawn’s challenges on multiple levels. Given the complexity of neighborhoods and the institutions that undergird them, this comprehensiveness was essential.

After all, simply rehabbing houses and putting them on the market wouldn’t have been enough to ensure Chicago Lawn fully bounced back from the devastation wrought by the foreclosure crisis. Residents needed faith in the future of their community to fully commit to the neighborhood and begin rebuilding its social fabric. Thanks to its comprehensive approach, Reclaiming Southwest Chicago provided a reason for that faith.

As its first phase wraps up, campaign organizers have their eye on extending the initiative outward into the rest of Chicago Lawn. As they do so, they intend to fight not only for the continued revitalization of their neighborhood but also the adoption of a new paradigm of city planning.

A vacant Chicago Lawn house in July 2008.

Alex Fledderjohn

Specifically, they aim to prove that when the wellbeing of neighborhoods is considered as important as wellbeing of the Loop and the city’s most exclusive lakefront communities, Chicago will be stronger for it.                    

“Our success as a city depends on creating neighborhoods where families of all races, faiths and income levels can find affordable housing, safe streets and good schools,” Nick Brunick of United Power for Action and Justice told the crowd after they had recently returned from their walk with Madigan.

According to many in the audience, they’re well on their way to making that idea a natural starting point for conversations about the future of Chicago.

“You have other communities that want politicians to take the lead on everything, but in this case, SWOP took it upon themselves,” said State Sen. Mattie Hunter. “They have the formula, and I hope other communities can learn from them.”

Posted in Housing, Chicago Lawn


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