- Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop - http://www.newstips.org -

Preserving Affordable Housing – South Side, West Side

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As private and nonprofit developers on Chicago’s West Side undertake the largest rescue of troubled subsidized housing in the nation’s history, other community organizers are meeting to develop proactive strategies for low-income housing with subsidies nearing expiration.

[About 300 community activists – half of them tenants in buildings facing loss of their subsidies – attended the Chicago Rehab Network’s South Side Affordable Housing Summit on June 3 at King High School.]

Nearly three fourths of the 12,400 low-income units covered by rental subsidy contracts and mortgate assistance on the South Side could be lost in the next three years, said Leah Levinger of CRN.

The summit will focus on preservation tools including new state legislation which requires tenant notification when owners decide to end subsidies and gives tenant associations first option to purchase the property.

Logan Square Neighborhood Association organizers will discuss their recent victory using the law to save 54 units of project-based Section 8 housing.

In Woodlawn, the Student Tenant Organizing Project has blocked owners who sought to scare tenants into moving — counting on their ignorance of possible legal recourses — so they could convert subsidized buildings to condos “illegally,” said Della Moran. Tenants in several buildings there are now organizing so they can act to save affordability when contracts do expire.

Meanwhile the West Side’s Lawndale Restoration, the largest project-based Section 8 complex in the city, is being salvaged by a diverse group of developers, ranging from major nonprofits to local mom-and-pop landlords.

In late 2004 city inspectors found 1800 code violations in 100 buildings (with over a thousand Section 8 units) operated by Lawndale Restoration, after a car crash caused a partial cave-in at one building. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began foreclosure proceedings against Lawndale Restoration, planning to “voucher out” tenants by shifting subsidies from the housing units themselves to vouchers carried by tenants.

Housing advocates consider project-based subsidies to be more stable and note that many voucher holders end up in poor housing in segregated neighborhoods.

Lawndale tenants organized by ACORN and represented by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law sued HUD, demanding that project-based subsidies be maintained. ACORN also brought tenants to meet with top HUD officials in Washington.

“Tenants fought tooth and nail for long-term subsidies,” said Marty Shaloo of ACORN Housing.

They were helped when Congress passed the Shumer Amendment to last year’s HUD appropriation, requiring the agency to show that housing would be available for tenants vouchered out of Section 8 buildings.

Then the city stepped in, working with the Community Investment Corp., a nonprofit that helps independent landlords provide affordable housing, to assemble 23 developers and transfer title to them.

Developers agreed to keep housing affordable and are eligible for up to $40,000 per unit in HUD rehab grants. All the units will keep their project-based subsidies for two years, and 400 units will get 20-year Section 8 contracts. ACORN is co-developing about 250 of those units.

Tenants wanted more units covered by long-term contracts, but getting as many as they did was “a huge victory” given HUD’s policy of shifting subsidies from projects to vouchers, said Shaloo.

At this point many Lawndale tenants are taking a wait-and-see attitude, said Kaitlyn Johnson of ACORN, which has organized tenants throughout the developments.

“They’ve been screwed around so long they don’t know what to believe,” said developer Sel Dunlop. Dunlap is redeveloping an 8-unit building and is one of a number of Lawndale developers meeting together to coordinate efforts.

“The conditions are very bleak and they’ve been that way for years,” said Richard Townsell of Lawndale Christian Development Corp. LCDC is taking on 79 units in 13 buildings with plans to help some tenants purchase their homes.

Developers have been meeting with tenants, and one has organized a bus tour of her current properties. “We put a face on the company they’re dealing with and let them know how the buildings we own are maintained,” said Johnnie Heron, who is acquiring 69 units in three buildings.

“The idea is to provide a quality of housing residents have never enjoyed before,” said Dunlop, who hopes for a “spillover effect” improving the “culture of our community.”

They’ll also bring stability to a neighborhood increasingly beset by real estate speculation by providing a place for longtime low-income residents to remain — the goal of housing advocates across the city.