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Communities to banks: You can fix housing crisis, economy

Banks caused the housing crisis — and the financial crash which threw millions out of their jobs — and they can fix it, according to a new report.

By writing down underwater mortgages to market value – using a relatively small portion of bailout financing they’ve received – banks could put a floor on the housing market, stem spiraling foreclosures, and provide the economy with a badly-needed second stimulus, creating millions of jobs over the next decade, the New Bottom Line Campaign argues in a new analysis.

It was released in Chicago last week at a vacant home on the West Side that’s being rehabbed under a new program — which demonstrates how community pressure can force banks to step up and take responsibility, organizers say.

(And it came out the same day Mayor Rahm  Emanuel announced a foreclosure recovery program that includes not one single community on the hard-hit West Side.)

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New push for Austin high school

With the city-backed warehouse development planned for the site of the old Brach plant in Austin stalled by the economy, the Austin Community Education Network is renewing its push to build a comprehensive high school on the site.

Parents, students, clergy and community organizations joined by local artists will hold a rally at the site, 4800 W. Chicago, on Tuesday, July 14 at 5:30 p.m.

It’s the only site with room for a state-of-the-art high school in Austin, which has the largest gap between the number of students and the number of seats in high-performing schools, the group maintains.

It’s now one year since the City Council rejected community pleas and approved a $10.6 million TIF subsidy for a suburban developer to build a warehouse and distribution center on the site.

But a deal to finance the project fell apart following last year’s economic downturn, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority. The developer’s TIF agreement with the city requires that financing be in place by May of 2010, he said.

“We see this as a window of opportunity to reconsider the use of the site, to use it for the public good and the benefit of the community and thousands of students,” Crawford said. The group has a commitment from a local bank to purchase the property from the developer and donate it to CPS for a new school, he said. “So if the developer is having trouble getting financing, this could be the answer.”

ACEN has called for a state-of-the-art high school and innovation center with cultural and athletic facilities, along with an “innovation center” providing training in green jobs, to be built on the 27-acre site which formerly housed a candy manufacturing plant.

Council: ‘No’ to Austin high school

“Community hopes of transforming the 30-acre site of  a former Brach’s candy factory into a state-of-the-art high school were dashed yesterday as city council members voted to help its owner convert it to warehouse space instead,” Chitown Daily News reports.

“Why can’t kids in Austin have the type of schools and extracurricular components that kids in Naperville have?” asks Rev. Ira Acree.

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Austin TIF: warehouse or high school – 2

The Austin Community Education Network will hold a press conference tomorrow morning (Wednesday, June 11) at City Hall prior to a 9:15 a.m. meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.

A hundred parents, students and community leaders supporting a new Austin High School attended a June 6 finance committee hearing, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority. Testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to a TIF subsidy for a warehouse project on the site proposed by the Austin Community Education Network for a new high school, he said.

But the committee recessed without voting. Crawford predicts a quick vote in favor of the TIF tomorrow so the matter can be considered in a full council meeting later in the morning.

“We will continue to fight,” he said. “We’re very concerned about the parliamentary procedure when the finance committee can reconvene and move the item to the full council without proper public notification.”

He said other sites on the Northwest Industrial Corridor could accommodate the warehouse project, but Ald. Ed Smith has been unwilling to discuss alternatives.

“We’re dealing with a very stubborn alderman who thinks he knows what’s best for the community despite hundreds of people who have called and written him to oppose the subsidy,” Crawford said. “Instead he’s supporting an outside developer with taxpayer dollars to build a warehouse that is not going to bring any benefit to the community.”

Austin TIF: Warehouse or High School?

Large numbers of Austin residents will be at a City Council Finance Committee meeting Friday morning, June 6, to oppose approval of TIF funding for a warehouse on the site selected by community groups for a new high school.

Ald. Ed Smith (28th Ward) and the city are proposing a $10.6 million TIF subsidy for ML Realty of Itaska to develop a warehouse and distribution center at the site of the former Brach candy factory at 401 N. Cicero. The subsidy amounts to nearly a quarter of the total budget for the project, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority.

In a proposed contract with the city, the developer “estimates” that 75 jobs will be created, but the TIF funding includes no guarantees about jobs or local hiring, Crawford said.

“It’s just a handful of jobs” with “no real guarantees,” said Bob Vondrasek of the South Austin Coalition. “It’s a lot of truck traffic.”

The same developer built a Coca Cola distribution center at Division and Cicero two years ago, and “nobody in Austin knows anybody who works there,” Crawford said. That development “still has significant unleased space, two years later,” he added.

The Austin Community Education Network, a coalition of community groups, students, parents and educators, has worked with CPS to find a site for a new neighborhood high school since Austin High School was closed in 2006. While several small schools and charter schools and two converted middle schools serve Austin high school students, 70 percent have to attend schools out of the neighborhood, Crawford said.

“Right now you have a situation where there is no high school in the Austin community that the children of Austin are entitled to attend,” said retired educator Grady Jordan.

ACEN envisions a state-of-the-art school on the 27-acre site with full athletic and cultural facilities — “an educational complex and innovation center” that might include construction trades and green technology training, Crawford said.

A smaller site identified by CPS at Kenton and Jackson — part of which is being developed for senior housing — was not central to the community and could accommodate less than half of the 3,000 students which the coalition believes need to be served, he said. And it didn’t have room for a full complement of facilities.

“We need a comprehensive high school in Austin so that the children of Austin will have all the options, academic and extracurricular,” said Jordan, who was Collins High principal for ten years and superintendent of CPS high schools for another ten.

Ald. Smith has come under some pressure. “To give priority to a private developer subsidized by TIF funds over the future education of our children is treacherous,” said Crawford.

“We think the process used by Ald. Smith was very flawed,” Vondrasek said. He thinks an alternative site can be found for the warehouse.

Austin Groups Want New High School

A newly-constructed, traditional open-enrollment high school in Austin is one of the goals of a new alliance of community groups focused on a comprehensive educational plan for the West Side neighborhood.

This week the groups invited CPS officials to a public meeting at Frederick Douglass High School, 543 N. Waller, to discuss reports that CPS was considering closing Douglass. The former middle school was converted to a temporary high school in 2004 when Austin High was closed to new enrollment.

CPS chief of staff David Pickens told the meeting that Douglass would remain open next year but would be reevaluated on an annual basis. He invited community groups to meet with him quarterly to monitor that process.

The “uncertainty, misinformation and miscommunication” around plans for Douglass “leaves students feeling like they’re in limbo” – and mirrors the larger failure of CPS to involve parents, students, and the community in educational planning, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority, one of the organizers of the meeting.

He said Pickens’ proposal for community oversight of the evaluation of Douglass was “a good first step.”

This spring WHA convened the Austin Roundtable on Education with the South Austin Coalition, the West Side Ministers Coalition, and other groups and individuals involved in education. They are working toward formulating a comprehensive educational plan for the community. They also want CPS to be open about what plans, if any, they have for schools in the neighborhood.

One clear goal of the Roundtable, according to Crawford: “A traditional high school is exactly what we need in our community.” A high school is “one of the centers of a community” and can serve as a focal point for “broad based community participation and community pride and a whole community culture of learning.”

Austin has one of the largest populations of Chicago’s communities, with the highest density of students, Crawford said. Currently three-fourths of Austin’s high school students attend schools outside the neighborhood. Austin High has reopened with one small school, and two more are planned for the building. Douglass, originally built as an elementary school, is inadequate in terms of capacity and facilities, Crawford said.

“We want what CPS would provide for any other community,” he said. “We are ready to take this campaign to the streets, to organize action after action after action, even if it means visiting some of our officials at their offices or at their homes. We feel this community deserves better treatment from CPS.”

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