Foundation, politicians support housing proposals at Rogers Park meeting

Community members filled the pews at Rogers Park Presbyterian Church Sunday, but not for a worship service, though people passing by the church might not have been able to tell the difference.

“If you are moved to say ‘Amen’ or to clap, please don’t hold back,” said  the Rev. Debbie Paton, pastor of the church.  “Do not sit on your hands.  They were made for celebration and that is the first rule of this meeting.”

She chaired a meeting about proposals aimed at combating the loss of affordable rental housing in Rogers Park and the impact of foreclosure on neighborhoods.  The meeting was sponsored by two community organizations and brought together residents, clergy, politicians and foundation representatives to build support for the proposals.

“I can’t begin to tell you,” Rogers Park resident Arletha Gary, who attended the meeting, said when asked about the number of people she knew who had moved from Rogers Park because of disappearing affordable housing.

Gary said that in the more than 20 years she had lived in the neighborhood, she has seen housing costs rise and subsidized apartments turned into condominiums, forcing many neighborhood residents to move  to the west and north and even as far as Englewood.

Speaking from the pulpit in support of a proposed rental improvement fund, Brian White, executive director of Lakeside CDC, expressed similar concerns: “Simply put, we need affordable rental housing in our community.”

“Amen,” the audience replied.

White said the neighborhood lost more than 3,600 rental units during the peak of the recent housing boom.

“Families were uprooted and pushed from one spot to another or else pushed out of the community altogether,” White said.  “Much of the remaining affordable rental housing is in buildings which need repair to make them livable and cost-effective.”

The rental improvement fund proposal would establish a new TIF district–where a portion of property taxes are diverted to fund grants for landlords to make improvements to multi-family rental housing. Landlords would receive grants of up to $350,000 on the condition that they maintain rents at affordable levels for 10 years.

The next step for the proposal is an eligibility study, required by the state law before establishing a new TIF district.  While the city has sanctioned the study, White said, outside funding is necessary.

Mijo Vodopic, program officer for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said the foundation was interested in a continued dialogue about the rental improvement fund, but stopped short of  committing funds to move the proposal forward.

“We were very encouraged to have the rental improvement fund brought to our attention,” Vodopic said, noting that the idea originated from community organizations with an understanding of the neighborhood’s housing needs.

Vodopic said the foundation looks forward to a full proposal from the improvement fund’s organizers.

“What happens when a couple of homes on just one block go into foreclosure?” Pam Riedy, a Northside POWER leader who spoke at the meeting, asked.  “We see our community struggle to maintain their roots while we are forced to uproot and transition into a new neighborhood.”

“Do you ever get the feeling that banks got bailed out and we got sold out?” Riedy asked the the audience.

“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” voices responsed.

After the meeting, Riedy linked foreclosure and affordable housing, saying that owners of smaller rental properties offering affordable rents are much more vulnerable to factors such as the loss of a tenant.  If these factors lead to the landlord entering foreclosure, affordable housing could be lost.

Supporters of measures designed to alleviate the impact of foreclosure on communities found support from Illinois State Senator Heather Steans and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin at the meeting.  Both politicians said they would support state legislation that provided for foreclosure outreach, mediation and vacant property maintenance.

The proposed foreclosure legislation includes a $1,000 fee, paid by the seller of a foreclosed property, that would fund outreach and mediation programs similar to a Cook County program that started April 12.  Authorization of local governments to hold owners, trustees, and mortgage-holders responsible for maintaining and securing vacant properties is also a part of the proposed legislation.

Riedy said lawmakers in Springfield are circulating  drafts of legislation containing the provisions supported by Northside POWER, but to her knowledge, none had been introduced.

Even if legislators don’t get to the foreclosure proposals until the fall, Riedy said, supporters would still push for the legislation.   “We are going to be knocking on doors all summer,” she said.

Read more about the Proposed 49th Ward Rental Improvement Fund.

Originally published April 20, 2010 as “Foundation, politicians support housing proposals at Rogers Park meeting” at Medill Reports.