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.

Groups push preservation of affordable housing in Rogers Park

The advocates will speak at a meeting in Rogers Park, organized by Lakeside Community Development Corporation and Northside POWER. It’s scheduled for 3 p.m. at Rogers Park Presbyterian Church, 7059 N. Greenview Ave.

Organizers said they planned to discuss two topics at the meeting: a proposed tax increment financing district that would finance improvement and preservation of affordable rental housing in the 49th Ward and efforts to introduce state legislation that would help families and communities facing foreclosure.

The proposed TIF district would finance a rental improvement fund that landlords of multifamily rental properties could use to make improvements to the property on the condition that the landlords maintain rents at affordable levels.

Polyana Wolf, a community leader working with Northside POWER, said she has been talking to landlords, city officials and community members to inform them about the rental improvement fund proposal.

POWER is an acronym for People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore.

Wolf, a Rogers Park resident since 2001, said she became involved in affordable housing issues after being displaced twice, once when her apartment building was converted to condominiums and again when her rent jumped $200.

“I was very concerned about being able to continue to live here,” Wolf said.  “It’s really traumatic to get displaced.”

Wolf said she was struck by the community’s positive response to the proposal but that some have been concerned with the creation of another TIF district amid widespread criticism of TIFs.

Wolf said the proposal was a model of TIF reform and that organizers have tried to respond to concerns about TIFs in drafting the proposal.

A document describing the proposal released by Lakeside CDC and Northside POWER lists as differences from traditional TIFs a baseline that rises with the cost of living, a so-called use it or lose it provision for the improvement funds and community oversight of the TIFs.

Wolf said that the proposal also differs from other TIFs aimed at creating affordable housing. “Our definition of affordability is based on what’s traditionally been affordable in the community.”

Wolf said she hoped the rental improvement fund could be a model for other communities concerned with preserving affordable housing.

“This is the best effort that I’ve seen any community come up with to maintain a balance,” Wolf said.  While many communities are either mostly wealthy or poor, Wolf said, “people from all walks of life can live in Rogers Park.  We want to preserve thousands of apartments that we already have.”

Lakeside CDC Executive Director Brian White said the next step for the proposal is an eligibility study that would investigate the condition of real estate in the community, the taxing base, the geographic boundaries of the proposed district and identify existing land uses within the proposed district’s boundaries.

While the Chicago Department of Community Development has been supportive of the eligibility study, White said, the size of the district means that the costs of the study, conducted by outside consultants, will be significant.

White said supporters must seek outside funding because the city is not able to fund it.

White said supporters of the proposal have been working with private foundations in the Chicago metropolitan area to gain funding for an eligibility study.  “So far it’s looking promising, but we don’t have a commitment yet,” White said.  “I hope we’ll be able to announce some real progress on the funding piece.”

White said the meeting would be an opportunity for community members to learn more about the proposal and its impact on the community.  “They might not know the big picture,” White said.

White said the meeting would also be an opportunity to publicly acknowledge those who had been working to support the proposal and to demonstrate community support to state and local officials and representatives from the foundation community who have been invited to attend.

Pam Riedy, a community leader from Glenview working with Northside POWER, said the second part of the meeting would focus on legislative goals dealing with foreclosure.

Riedy said she is pushing for foreclosure legislation being drafted in Springfield to include a $1,000 fee when a court-foreclosed property is sold.  This fee, paid by the lender selling the property, would go back to municipalities to fund door-to-door outreach and foreclosure mediation.

Riedy said advocates are looking for state funding to replicate a new Cook County foreclosure mediation program statewide.  Riedy said both door-to-door outreach and mediation are crucial for homeowners facing foreclosure to stay in their homes.

“Ninety-two percent of foreclosures are because people do not show up in court,” Riedy said. “By going to court and getting a mediator, that’s the best chance to renegotiate their loans.”

A second legislative goal would define responsibility for vacant properties, Reidy said.

She said that, under law, evicted, foreclosed homeowners are responsible for securing and maintaining the vacant property.

“It is not realistic to say the homeowner who’s been evicted from the house needs to come back to maintain the property,” Riedy said.

Supporters of foreclosure reform want to see legislation that holds banks that have taken ownership of a foreclosed property responsible for maintaining it.

Riedy said the public meeting would help define the issue and get city and county officials who had supported local measures to address foreclosure to support legislation extending the measure statewide.

She added that she is excited by community efforts for foreclosure reform.

“At a time when so many people are disenchanted with their elected officials,” Riedy said, “there’s a sense of energy.”

Read a fact sheet about the rental improvement fund.

Originally published April 14, 2010 as “Groups push preservation of affordable housing in Rogers Park” at Medill Reports.

Proposed TIF could help preserve affordable housing

Supporters of a proposed 49th ward rental improvement fund, who say it would improve rental stock and preserve its affordability, may be one step closer to their goal after Alderman Joe Moore introduced an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Moore’s ordinance commended the Department of Community Development for its support of an eligibility study.  The study is the first step towards realizing the proposed improvement fund.  Betsy Vandercook, Moore’s chief of staff, said formal support could help the groups proposing the RIF find funding for the study.  “Joe is always open to any new initiatives or experiments for expanding affordable housing,” Vandercook said.

Rogers Park-based organizations Lakeside Community Development Corporation and Northside P.O.W.E.R.  developed the RIF proposal.  The proposed fund would provide grants for multifamily rental property repair and rehabilitation.  Grants could be used by landlords to bring a building up to code or for other improvements including brickwork, roofing, gutters and downspouts, windows and doors, porches, plumbing, heating and electrical systems.

Recipients of the grants would be required to keep rents affordable for 10 years.

Grants would be available on a per-unit basis and the amount of the grant would depend on the rent limits for the unit.  Rent limits would be calculated as a percentage of the area median income, a value determined by the Department of Community Development.  Based on the March 2009 AMI, the proposal listed an example rent limit for a two bedroom unit where the tenant pays all utilities as $404 at 30 percent of the AMI, $743 at 50 percent of the AMI, and $914 at 60 percent of the AMI.

The maximum grant for a single unit would be $17,500.  For multiple units, up to a total of $350,000 could be granted to a property.

The rental improvement fund would get money through tax increment financing.  Vandercook said the proposed TIF district was “very unusual” because it would be the first district in Chicago to cover an entire ward.  The TIF could generate more than $54 million according to estimates published by Northside P.O.W.E.R.

Eligibility studies, conducted by city-approved consultants, are required before the city can create a new TIF district.  The multi-stage study can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars said Rev. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, executive director of Good News Community Kitchen and Northside P.O.W.E.R.

Pagán-Banks said the idea of the rental improvement fund came out of concern over the loss of affordable housing in Rogers Park.  A wave of condominium conversions that happened in the mid-2000s “really hurt the rental stock in the community,” Pagán-Banks said , and affordable rentals were particularly hard-hit.  While the economic downturn has stopped the wave of condo conversions, the affordable rental housing stock that was lost is still gone, Pagán-Banks said.

The loss of affordable housing can affect other aspects of the community such as education, Pagán-Banks said, citing Gale, a Rogers Park school she said was “severely underenrolled.”  A decrease in a school’s enrollment can result in a decrease in funding, she said.

Cindy Bush, director of organizing at Northside P.O.W.E.R., is trying to meet with as many Rogers Park business owners and residents as possible to build broad-based support for the RIF’s eligibility study.  “Just about everyone we’ve talked to is on board with the notion of maintaining affordable rental housing in Rogers Park,” Bush said.

This does not mean that the proposal is an easy sell.  “The biggest reservation that I have heard is around the concept of TIF.”  Supporters of the RIF try to distinguish its TIF district from existing ones.  “We view the RIF as a reformed TIF,” Bush said.

Unlike traditional TIF districts, which calculate a tax revenue base line that remains static over the TIF district’s 23 years, the proposed TIF district would have a base line that could rise with the cost of living up to 1 percent per year.  This would allow taxing bodies to get additional revenue as their costs rise.

The RIF proposal indicates funds would be “use-it-or-lose-it.”  If unused funds reached a certain level, the RIF would receive no additional funds from the tax increment.

Pagán-Banks said that lack of transparency and community direction and involvement were two prime criticisms of TIFs.  The RIF proposal calls for the creation of a community-based board to make decisions about the fund.  It also calls for transparency through open meetings and the publication of financial statements.

Pagán-Banks also expects some concern from business in the ward as funds from the proposed TIF district would only finance improvements to rental housing and not commercial development.  Still, Pagán-Banks said, affordable housing allows people to stay in the neighborhood, which is “good for everyone.”

While the process to create the RIF started last year it is still in its early stages, Vandercook said.  Supporters of the proposal will work to fund the eligibility study and continue to develop community backing, Pagán-Banks said.  “If the community doesn’t support it, it’s not going to happen.”

A public meeting to discuss the RIF is scheduled for April 18 at 3 p.m. at Rogers Park Presbyterian Church, 7059 North Greenview Ave.

Ordinance would require TIF funds to be used for affordable housing

Backed by scores of city residents, Chicago aldermen introduced an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that would allocate 20 percent of the city’s TIF funds to affordable housing.

The proposed ordinance could be a boon to Chicago’s Northeast side, which has been hard hit by foreclosures. Rogers Park saw 401 foreclosure filings in 2009, up more than 44 percent from 2008, a report from the Woodstock Institute, a research and policy organization that tracks foreclosures, showed.

A draft of the ordinance circulated Wednesday listed a dozen aldermanic sponsors including 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore. “I have always been a staunch advocate of doing whatever we can to provide affordable housing,” Moore said, adding that he supported the ordinance because it was “pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box.”

“This ordinance will help me preserve our residential housing stock and help us keep it affordable to middle and working class families,” Moore said. “By having different pools of money to draw from, the alderman’s job becomes a little easier.”

Alderman Walter Burnett, 27th, is the lead sponsor of the proposal that is designed to rectify the city’s foreclosure crisis. At a press conference and rally sponsored by the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition and attended by members of a number of community organizations, Burnett said that Chicago had many empty houses because of foreclosure, eviction and the high cost of home ownership.

“We need to stabilize our communities by getting people in these houses. And the only way to do that is by subsidizing the cost with TIF dollars,” Burnett said.

The affordable housing ordinance’s lead sponsor is 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett (center). 28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith (left) and 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore (right) also sponsored the ordinance.

The ordinance would require the city to designate at least 20 percent of TIF funds generated each year for the development and preservation of affordable housing.

The ordinance defines affordable rental housing as having at least 50 percent of the housing units affordable to households at or below 50 percent of the area median income, adjusted for household size. The Sweet Home Chicago Coalition calculated this value as $37,000 for a family of four. Affordable for-sale housing must be affordable to households at or below 80 percent of the area median income, $60,300 for a family of four. The ordinance also requires at least 40 percent of housing units developed with TIF funds be affordable at or below 30 percent of the area median income, $22,600 for a family of four.

Developers would apply for the affordable housing funds through a Request for Proposal Process administered by the Department of Community Development. The funds could be used to construct new housing units or to rehabilitate existing housing.

TIF, or tax increment financing, is a tool to help strapped local governments attract private development and new businesses . This financing method works by establishing special TIF districts. Public investment is used to encourage private investment in the district. The investment is intended to raise property values and encourage further development. Higher assessed property values would generate additional tax revenue. The difference between the tax revenue raised before an area receives the TIF district designation and the higher revenue gained after the designation is called the tax increment. This increment is used to recover public investment in the district.

The ordinance would not require every TIF district to use 20 percent of its yearly revenue for affordable housing. Instead, the city would draw 20 percent of its total yearly tax increment revenue from a combination of TIF districts.

Sweet Home Chicago’s analysis of Department of Housing statistics shows that, as of 2008, Chicago TIF districts had collected $1.3 billion, but just 4 percent of the funds had been used for affordable housing development.

Introducing the ordinance to the council, Burnett said there was a lack of state and federal funding for affordable housing, making TIF funds an attractive option. “I see it only fitting that the city of Chicago use the tools that we have at hand in order to make it possible not only to put some of the foreclosed properties back on the tax roll but also to put more affordable housing back in the community,” said Burnett.

Calling the ordinance “our own stimulus package”, Burnett said affordable housing could spur other development. “Traditionally we have seen that in most communities throughout the city of Chicago, affordable housing has been the initiative and the spark to start development in those communities,” Burnett said.

Burnett recommended that the ordinance be passed to the council’s finance and housing committees for further review.