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The Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award

The Community Builders for Oakley Square Apartments

Eric Young Smith

Scale. It’s one thing to use “best practice” in a pilot project. It’s another to “take it to scale,” as in vastly improving life for hundreds of families trapped in a troubled housing development covering an entire city block.

Yet that’s exactly what The Community Builders achieved with the old St. Stephens Terrace at Western Avenue
and Jackson Boulevard, described by one longtime tenant as “a bleak island that was falling apart.”

The $48.5 million transformation into Oakley Square Apartments involved top-to-bottom rehab of 15 buildings comprising three seven-story mid-rises ringed by 12 two-story townhouse structures.

The scale of re-financing rivaled the physical. The project’s Section 8 rent contract, at risk of cancellation, was fully renewed and amplified by tax credits, bank refinancings and $1.5 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization (NSP2) funds previously awarded to TCB (one of very few non-profits nationally selected for direct NSP grants.)

More impressive was the rebuilding of trust, both among tenants and with management. Early gripe-and-wish meetings were held with both tenants and neighborhood stakeholders. A thoughtful intra-campus relocation during construction ended in a “Welcome Wagon” return to apartments transformed with new baths and dishwasher-equipped kitchens, not to mention fresh paint, lighting and flooring throughout.

There’s a new sense of community, too, fostered by replacement of ground-floor apartments with a children’s library, teen game room, hobby kitchen, fitness gym and a clinic run by Rush Medical Center.

“They had everything planned,” said tenant Aiesha Terry. “You really can’t even complain anymore.”