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Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award

Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation for Renters Organizing Ourselves to Stay

Eric Young Smith

As we now know the national foreclosure crisis, which often stripped unwary owners of their homes and their savings and communities of their residents, also became a crisis for renters. Too often unscrupulous owners of foreclosed properties continued collecting rents even though they no longer owned them, leaving tenants stunned and homeless when the new owners showed up to occupy the premises.

This facet of the foreclosure crisis hit Chicago’s Northwest Side particularly hard, where nearly 8,000 rental apartments in the sturdy two- to four-flat apartment buildings of the Albany Park area were foreclosed upon. At the same time, aware of the real estate potential of the area with its good schools, access to transit, retail establishments and recreational opportunities, cash investors swooped in to buy rental buildings and convert them into luxury rentals or high-end single-family for-sale homes. The result? Displaced tenants and a dramatic decrease in affordable housing.

Upon hearing of the crisis, organizers at Communities United (CU) were determined to fight back. Their first attack on the problem was their successful effort to pass a City Council ordinance to protect tenants’ rights in cases of owners’ foreclosures. The bigger issue they faced, however, was how to prevent some of the two- to four-flat buildings from flipping to luxury units.

“One solution,” said Mary Elena Sifuentes, the volunteer vice-president of CU’s board and a 30-year Albany Park resident, “was to buy the buildings ourselves, but we couldn’t afford it.” So CU sought and found others who could. Working with non-profit housing leaders Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation (CMHDC) and Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise), CU

created a strategy they termed “Renters Organizing Ourselves to Stay.” Working with local and federal officials the alliance was able to gain the cooperation of Fannie Mae, the owner of many foreclosed properties, to make them available at a 30 percent discount. Enterprise and CMHDC stepped up with some of the financing (with no government subsidy), and CMHDC did the hard work of buying the buildings and rehabbing them for a price that would make rents affordable to working class tenants.

As of late last year, CMHDC had acquired 41 units in 18 buildings, occupied by about 200 residents. Rents are between 50 to 80 percent of market rates, with the average family expected to save more than $2,300 per unit when compared to market rate counterparts. The alliance is now working with the city’s Department of Planning to identify resources to allow the acquisition of 20 additional units.

The immediate crisis stemmed, the community breathing a sigh of relief and the alliance is encouraged. “We’d like to do 200 units,” said Rafael Leon, CMHDC’s executive director. “We’re taking one day at a time. Our only restriction is our financial capacity.”