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‘Housing is infrastructure’

With the still-growing housing crisis at the core of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, advocates called for affordable housing to be a key component of stimulus and recovery plans.

“Housing is infrastructure,” said Jack Markowski of the Community Investment Corporation, alluding to massive infrastructure investments planned in the forthcoming stimulus program. “It employs people. It provides the foundation to allow people to be part of the workforce.” And with a growing need for energy conservation, “it’s part of the green economy.

“We have proposals that are shovel-ready,” he added, speaking at a gathering of over 200 community housing practitioners convened by the Chicago Rehab Network at Roosevelt University yesterday.

Markowski called for tripling expenditures for the federal HOME Investment Partnership Program, which finances affordable housing production — at $2 billion a year, its budget has not been increased since 1990, he said — as well as for the $4 billion Community Development Block Grant Program.

U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky described efforts by congressional leadership to include $23 billion for affordable housing development in the stimulus package, including $10 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund to build or save 100,000 low-income rental homes over two years, as well as funds for more low-income rental subsidies, upgrading public housing units to green standards, and helping cities redevelop foreclosed properties.

Together the proposed spending would assist 800,000 hard-hit households and create 200,000 new jobs, she said.

Schakowsky also discussed efforts to require any further spending under the TARP financial bailout program to include at least $40 billion for foreclosure mitigation.

Participants in two panels expressed high hopes for the incoming Obama administration. “We need a HUD that wants to do housing,” said Andrew Geer of Heartland Housing.

Community Media Workshop president Thom Clark moderated the panel discussions.

Joy Aruguete of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation emphasized the connection between affordable housing and a green jobs program, and Ted Wysocki of the LEED Council stressed the need for immediate training for green jobs.

Housing consultant Teresa Prim discussed the economic recovery plan proposed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Steven McCullough of Bethel New Life called for “holding financial institutions accountable and making sure capital is flowing to the people who really need it…. We’re at the point where a large number of multifamily buildings are in trouble because of [lack of] capital flow.”

McCullough said the worker sit-in at Republic Windows last month could be replicated in multifamily rental buildings, with families refusing to move when buildings go into foreclosure.

“In Chicago we’ve seen overinvestment in high-end housing causing displacement, and in Washington we’ve seen that a top-down housing policy allows the bottom to fall out,” said Pat Abrams of The Renaissance Collaborative. “But we who work at the community level have an alternative to the top-down approach.

“Affordable housing is a community anchor,” Abrams said. “We must ensure that affordable housing, and especially rental housing, is the centerpiece of any economy recovery.”

Tax credit backlog threatens Sutherland

Tenants at the historic Sutherland Apartments are continuing efforts to maintain their building’s affordability, despite long waits for federal housing tax credits administered by the city, which have discouraged several affordable housing groups.

“We want to keep it affordable and have a stake in ownership of the building as a tenant association,” said James Long, president of the Sutherland Apartments Tenants Association.

The building, located at 47th and Drexel, is home to the historic Sutherland Ballroom, which hosted jazz greats from the 1940s into the 1970s. A renovation of the ballroom is being completed, Long said.

The building itself was renovated in the late 1980s and reopened in 1990 with low-income housing tax credits guaranteeing 15 years of affordability. The tax credits expired in 2005 and the owner, Heartland Housing, sought new tax credits from the city to maintain the building’s affordability.

“We were told the city was not going to have enough tax credits” and the proposal would have to wait, perhaps several years, said Andrew Geer of Heartland.

Lack of funding — and particularly lack of clarity on funding timelines — is an issue throughout the affordable housing industry, he said.

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