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Direct action against foreclosures

Most advocates for families with troubled mortgages say some cases are unsalvagable. Not Action Now.

“We accept anyone, even the most difficult cases,” said Madeline Talbott of Action Now, a grassroots membership organization of low-income families based in Englewood, West Englewood, Austin and Little Village.

Calls to the group about mortgage problems “are increasing dramatically,” Talbott said. Action Now refers homeowners to counseling if it’s an option; if not they take a busload of members to the loan servicer’s office and “sit in and raise hell,” she said.

“Sitting in works,” she said. “It gets results.”

If there’s no local office for the loan servicer, the group encourages the Illinois Attorney General’s office to take action.

“Homeowners think it’s a matter of humilitation and shame; we think it’s a huge scandal brought on by lenders,” Talbott said. “We help people see it’s not a personal problem, it’s a public issue.”

Rather than being embarrassed, she says, homeowners in trouble “should be outraged at the injustice.”

The crisis stems from predatory lending, and Talbott lays much blame on the Bush administration, which “opposed any efforts to clamp down on predatory lending” and “completely opened the floodgates. It’s a systemwide failure.”

“You buy a house once or twice in a lifetime,” Talbott said. “How are you supposed to be an expert on all the scams they can run on you?”

“When we started organizing in Englewood in the ’80s there was a huge number of abandoned buildings.” Redlining meant there was no access to credit and it was very difficult to transact real estate deals. “We fought for CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act] and established lines of credit. Things changed and you could start buying and selling property through normal channels.”

Then “the subprimers found loopholes in the regulations, and nobody stopped them. The predatory lenders came in with the line than anybody could get a house.

“Now we’re back to just as many abandoned homes as ever.”

“What we need is an across-the-board solution,” Talbott said, with new federal legislation and regulation. “But for that we may need a new president and Congress, and we’re going to lose tens of thousands of homes in Illinois this year.”

In the meantime, the state should require mandatory mediation before foreclosure. “If you can get to mediation, you can often resolve these issues,” Talbott said.

Action Now has also prepared language for a city ordinance requiring owners of empty properties to pay fines and fees and acquire a license. That would give lenders an incentive to negotiate a resolution with homeowners.

Sit-ins also provide such incentives, and Action Now plans to continue with direct action.

“We really think this is a problem that was caused by bad guys, and we’re going to go after them,” said Talbott.

Little Village Rallies for School Health Center

In the face of flagging public support for school-based health centers this year with budget crises for the state and county, community and business partners rallied to open a new health center at Little Village Lawndale High School.

The new center opened October 27 and has been very busy, said director Maria Sauerzapf. Parents toured the new clinic Monday during report card pickup day, and coaches bringing teams in for sports physicals note that what used to require a day off from school now takes only one class period, she said.

The health center provides primary care, pediatrics, and clinical counseling along with health education, and is open to students and community residents. A counselor has been able to help kids who were “close to being kicked out of school,” she said. “Before, when students were referred for [mental health] services, they had to send them way out of the community” and many didn’t make it, Sauerzapf said.

The closest public clinic is the Jorge Prieto Clinic operated by Cook County, about a mile away, but it often takes weeks to get an appointment there, she said, and the nearest site for STD testing is even further.

The Prieto clinic was proposed as sponsor of the school’s health center, before the clinic itself was threatened by county’s budget crisis. State assistance for the health center became unavailable when Governor Blagojevich vetoed funding for 20 new school centers.

The nonprofit community-based Alivio Medical Center stepped in as the sponsor, with major support from CITGO Petroleum Corp. as well as the school’s primary sponsor, the Little Village Community Development Corp.

The Illinois Coalition for School Health Centers plans to persist in efforts to restore state funding for new and expanded centers, said Blair Harvey, noting that local governments, school districts, health care providers and community groups in 50 communities have asked for school health centers.

“They know high school students are one of the most underserved groups, the least likely to visit a doctor’s office, and the most at-risk,” she said.

Referenda Give Voters a Voice on Schools, Development, Jobs

Voters in precincts across Chicago will consider referenda on a range of local issues in the March 21 general primary.

[Updated3-22-06: Outcomes have been noted based on unofficial results of the Chicago Board of Elections.]

22nd Ward: High School Boundaries

A referendum calling on CPS to “draw attendance boundaries for Little Village High School to only allow students from the surrounding community to attend” is being opposed by Little Village Community Development Corp., the group which helped organize the hunger strike in 2000 which led to the creation of the new high school.

“This is not only divisive, it is unconstitutional,” said Jesus Garcia, executive director of LVCDC.

State Senator Martin Sandoval initiated the referendum complaining that the high school draws students from North Lawndale while some in Little Village are excluded.

In fact the students from North Lawndale live closer to the high school than students in the east portion of Little Village, said Jaime de Leon of LVDCC. He said the referendum has “racist implications” and is “based on the notion that African American students from North Lawndale are taking slots that should go to [Latino] kids from Little Village.”

He added that the school has a limited capacity and couldn’t accommodate all of Little Village’s high school students “The referendum would take us back to square one in terms of overcrowding,” he said.

At a recent meeting, parents of students at the high school “want to protect the way the school is set up,” de Leon said. “They don’t want their kids to go to an overcrowded school and they like the fact that their kids go to a school with more than one race.”

Leaders of the high school as well as nonprofit partners including Lawndale Christian Development Corporation and Instituto del Progreso Latino also oppose the referendum and defend the school’s diversity.

“We urge our elected officials to focus their efforts on improving the other schools in the area, instead of attacking our school,” said Rito Martinez, principal of the Social Justice School, one of four small schools at the high school.

[Measure approved by 54.8 percent of voters]

For more: Jaime de Leon, Little Village Community Development Corp., 773-447-0776

25th Ward: Downzoning

In 13 Pilsen precincts in the 25th Ward, Pilsen Alliance has a referendum asking voters whether Alderman Danny Solis should downzone the neighborhood — in general limiting new residential construction to single family homes — in order “to slow down gentrification” and “preserve the historic designation of Pilsen.”

Last month Pilsen was designated a state historic district, making homeowners eligible for an eight-year property tax freeze — if they invest 25 percent of their building’s assessed value into rehab.

The designation “could be a way to preserve buildings, but it could lead to speculation” and higher property taxes for residents, most of whom are low-income and would have difficulty qualifying for a tax freeze, said Alejandra Ibanez of Pilsen Alliance. “The benefits [of the designation] don’t outweigh the challenges and limitations for people with lower incomes,” she said.

“If [Solis] wants historic preservation, he’s going to have to put a moratorium on teardowns and he’s going to have to downzone” to head off “speculators [who] are buying bungalows and two-flats, demolishing them and building three- and four-story condos,” Ibanez said.

She is concerned about “misinformation” including claims that downzoning would lower property values. “That couldn’t be more wrong,” she said.

“Pilsen is already so hot it’s on fire,” said Ibanez. She said property taxes there doubled between 2000 and 2004.

In the last two years the group has lost campaigns to block two large condominium projects, and residents were discouraged after being “beat up and shut down” by aldermen and planning commissioners when they tried to testify against the projects, Ibanez said.

Pilsen Alliance recently completed a survey of all Pilsen’s lots, noting zoning, usage, ownership and taxes, Ibanez said. A report on their findings and policy recommendations is forthcoming, she said.

[Measure approved by 75.5 percent of voters]

For more: Alejandra Ibanez, 312-243-5440

35th Ward: Development and Jobs

Alderman Rey Colon is supporting three referenda in the 35th Ward, and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association is supporting two of them and opposing one.

LSNA supports referenda backing an inclusionary zoning ordinance (establishing affordable housing setasides in larger new developments and rehabs) and the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance requiring new retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet to pay a living wage and provide health benefits.

The inclusionary zoning measure “is a great tool for communities like Logan Square where the pool of rental and homeownership options for working families is shrinking as prices rise,” said Nancy Aardema of LSNA. The living wage ordinance has roots in an LSNA campaign in the late 1990s that won a community benefits agreement with a new Costco at Clybourne and Diversy providing job training, living wage jobs, and health insurance.

A third referendum calls on the alderman to “support commercial and residential redevelopment of the Fullerton/Milwaukee/Armitage TIF.” It gives the Alderman a “blank check,” said Aardema, and undercuts against community involvement in planning, which LSNA supports.

She points out that LSNA is supporting two development proposals in the TIF area that maintain local businesses, preserve existing buildings and remain in character with the rest of the block.

[Inclusionary zoning referendum passed with 76.7 percent of vote; Big Box Living Wage referendum passed with 83.5 percent; TIF referendum defeated with 56.3 percent of voters opposed.]

For more: Nancy Aardema, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, 773-384-4370

48th Ward – Senn High School

A referendum in the 48th ward calls on the Chicago Board of Education to “establish a formal process to receive community input regarding removal of the Rickover military academy at Senn High School.”

The decision to establish the military academy of Senn was an example of “decision makers holding meetings to say they’ve gotten community input when the decision has already been made,” said Christopher Persons of Citizens for Inclusive Government, a group formed to sponsor the referendum.

“At every opportunity for community input” on the Rickover academy “the input was strongly in opposition — from teachers, students, and the community — and it went ahead anyway,” Persons said. He said school and elected officials deferred to Ald. Mary Ann Smith on the decision.

Senn’s LSC opposed installing the academy unanimously, Persons said — and when Smith established her own “Senn Tomorrow” committee, that group also overwhelmingly opposed the academy. Smith then dissolved the committee, he said.

The group’s voter canvas has found support for the referendum among “a strong majority of residents who are in favor of removing the academy” — and also among supporters of the academy “who agree there ought to be a thorough and honest process,” he said.

“They’ll deny it and deny it, but [the academy] is a recruitment scheme” — especially in a school with many lower-income students, Persons said. With rising test scores and a student body speaking 56 languages, Senn should consider establishing a peace academy, an international studies program, or a language academy, he said.

[Referendum approved by 69.7 percent of voters.]

For more: Christopher Persons, Citizens for Inclusive Government, 773-370-3055

49th Ward – Community Benefits

Five Rogers Park precincts will vote on whether employers who receive public funds should be required to hire locally, pay a living wage, and respect the right to organize. The referendum was placed on the ballot by the Rogers Park Community Action Network, which is seeking jobs commitments at the Howard CTA reconstruction project as well as two local TIF districts.

[Measure approved by 87.9 percent of voters]

For more: Fran Tobin, Rogers Park Community Action Network, 773-973-7888

Wards 24, 28, 29, and 37 – Jobs for Ex-Offenders

A referendum on the ballot in four wards with the highest number of people returning from prison seeks to lift employment barriers for nonviolent ex-offenders for public jobs. It backs legislation removing criminal background questions on state, county and municipal job applications.

The four wards cover Austin, North Lawndale, and East Garfield Park, the three community areas with the highest concentration of returning ex-offenders, according to a recent Urban Institute report.

According to the report, over half of the over 20,000 ex-offenders who return to Chicago each year end up in one of seven neighborhoods.

“We believe that if the public sector agrees to help more people [with criminal backgrounds] secure jobs, the private sector will follow,” said La Shawn Ford, a candidate for state representative in the 8th district who organized the referendum drive.

Ford points out that the federal government does not ask job applicants about their criminal background, and several states limit questions on criminal background on their job applications.

“I truly believe that if individuals are able to gain employment, they will be better citizens and better parents,” he said.

Ford said that volunteers he organized collected 4,000 signatures for the referendum in two weekends. “That shows how pressing the issue is — for ex-offenders and for society.”

[Passed overwhelmingly in all three wards; combined totals: 12,618 yes, 1,015 no]

For more: La Shawn Ford, 773-378-5902

Communities Meet on Coal Plants

Residents of Pilsen and Little Village – home of the city’s two coal-fired power plants – will testify along with environmental and health experts and elected officials at a community hearing on proposals to regulate coal plant emissions on Monday, February 13.

The Fisk and Crawford power plants are the two largest industrial sources of air pollution in Chicago. The Illinois EPA has proposed new rules to curb mercury emissions from the plants, and IEPA controls on nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide are due soon under the federal government’s Clean Air Interstate Rule program, said Dorian Breuer of the Pilsen/Southwest Side Green Party.

Meanwhile, a city ordinance to require up-to-date emissions control technology at the two plants has been stalled in the City Council for three years.

Breuer cited studies showing that breathing outdoor air in Chicago can have health effects comparable to second-hand smoke, including a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease and higher incidence of asthma. Coal plant emissions are the second most significant source of air pollution in the city, after auto emissions, he said.

Officials of the IEPA and the city’s Department of Environment will attend the community hearing, which will begin at 7 p.m., following a press conference at 6:30 p.m., at Dvorak Park Field House, 1119 W. Cullerton.

Grassroots Media Festival

The second annual Grassroots Media Festival takes place next month in a churchyard in Little Village.

Last year the festival featured Brazilian and Aztec dancers, Latin folk and independent rock bands, and an “iron mechanic” bicycle race in which bike couriers, mechanics, and others competed to assemble bicycles from scratch and race them around a track.

Similar exhibitions are expected this year, and festival planners hope to highlight links between the traditional Brazilian martial art of Capoiera and the break dancing of Hip Hop culture. It’s all capped off by an outdoor screening of independently-produced videos.

The festival aims to promote the wide range of community-based artistic activity that occurs outside the mainstream, and voluntary donations at the door will go to a fund to support independent media projects, said Alix Gonzalez of Ritual Multimedia Arts Collective, one of many groups collaborating on the festival.

The Grassroots Media Festival takes place on the evenings of August 20 and 21 at Amor de Dios Methodist Church and Community Garden, 2348 S. Sawyer.

Hearing Called on Blue Line Restoration

Under pressure from neighborhood groups in the Blue Line Transit Task Force as well as several aldermen, CTA president Frank Kreusi has agreed to testify at a hearing on restoring weekend and late-night service on the Cermak branch of the Blue Line.

Kreusi had refused numerous requests for meetings with the Task Force, said Jaime de Leon of Little Village Community Development Corporation, but he has agreed to testify at a hearing of the City Council’s transportation committee scheduled for July 19.

The Task Force has been working since 1998 to restore service on the Blue Line, the only transit line in the city without weekend service. A recent report by the Task Force found strong demand for restored services among riders. The study compared ridership on other CTA lines and other factors and concluded that Blue Line service cuts discriminate against low-income minority communities.

“There are people here who have to turn down jobs because they can’t get to them,” said Maurice Redd of the Lawndale Neighborhood Organization. With an average family income of $18,000 and a 50 percent poverty rate, there are a lot of one-car and no-car households. “The census showed 15 percent of our community works third shift,” said Redd. “In parts of the community, after 12 or 1 there’s no way to get around at all.”

Many Little Village residents work in the hospitality industry downtown or around O’Hare, said de Leon. Students attend high schools and colleges downtown. And there’s no way to get to city events downtown, which are funded by residents’ taxes, he said.

CTA officials have said they won’t consider restoring service until reconstruction is completed in January. Task Force members say reconstruction is ahead of schedule and may be complete by October — and that what work remains is comparable to the scope of the Brown Line reconstruction, which is being carried out without service disruptions. “We need more accountability,” said Redd, welcoming the City Council’s intervention.

The Task Force had hoped to restore service by this summer. “Every day it continues, people are denied access to jobs, people can’t get to festivals,” said Alejandra Ibanez of the Pilsen Alliance.

CIRCLE LINE

While Task Force members focus on restoring “24-7″ service, other community groups are worried that if service is restored, it will be rerouted into phase one of a new Circle Line.

The CTA is finishing up a $33 million project refurbishing an old section of elevated tracks and running test trains, while working on a plan to divert the Blue Line’s Cermak branch trains at Polk and Paulina up to the Green Line before routing them downtown, said Jacqueline Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

It’s described as phase one of a Circle Line which would link gentrifying neighborhoods around the Loop with the downtown, and which would ultimately cost billions of dollars. “And nobody has asked for it, and there’s been no discussion of it,” Leavy said. She points out that the CTA would be building a new system in areas already well served by public transportation, while “huge swatches of the city are underserved by rapid transit.”

“It means the Red Line won’t be extended to 130th, the extension of the Orange Line to Ford City will get no priority, and the South East Side will continue to have no access to rapid transit,” said Leavy. And it means the long-standing proposal for a Mid-City Transit Way, linking O’Hare and Midway as well as existing CTA and Metra lines, will languish.

“We’re very comfortable with the way [the Cermak branch] is set up, with direct access to downtown,” said Jo Ann Bradley of the Community Action Group of North Lawndale. “We don’t see a benefit to the circle line.”

Bradley scores CTA for lack of transparency. “They say they haven’t decided [on the Circle Line] but they’ve already spent millions of dollars on it.”

“They make their plans in secret and come out and hold what I call puppet hearings and slant everything to make it look like people want what they’ve already planned,” said Bradley. “Nobody out here is asking for the Blue Line to be rerouted up to some Circle Line,” she said.

Noting that as now configured, the Cermak branch connects the major Latino communities in the city, Miguel Turnil of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said, “They are not doing this to benefit the community.” LVEJO is collecting signatures on petitions and postcards saying “24-7 and no reroute,” Turnil said.

Communities Look to City for Coal Plant Clean-up

With the federal government backtracking on emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, community activists are stepping up pressure for local action.

Dozens of environmental activists, health experts and students converged on Mayor Daley’s office on Dec. 11 to urge him to back Ald. Edward Burke’s Clean Power Ordinance. They announced that a referendum backing the ordinance will be on the ballot next spring in two precincts, near the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village, both owned by Midwest Generation.

The 40-year-old plants predate the 1977 Clean Air Act and thus are exempt from its emission standards. They have high emissions of sulfur, mercury, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated the two plants are responsible for 40 deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2800 asthma attacks a year.

Burke’s ordinance would require them to reduce toxic emissions by 90 percent by the year 2006, which would necessitate installing modern cleaning technology or switching to coal gassification or natural gas.

No hearings have been held on the ordinance, and activists attribute this to lack of support from the Mayor. “Mayor Daley likes to say he’s the greenest mayor in the country, but he hasn’t done anything for low-income communities of color,” said Francisco Rios of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

On the state level, the General Assembly voted this year to authorize the Illinois EPA to study coal plant emissions and propose new standards. One possible economic advantage is that new coal-burning technology would allow coal plants in Illinois to use high-sulfur Illinois coal.



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