Eric Young Smith
Even before the national foreclosure crisis in 2007, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) was alarmed by the increasing number of Chicago Lawn homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments and called attention to the predatory lenders that were taking advantage of the inexperience of first-time home buyers. To understand and illustrate the severity of the problem, in 2008 SWOP created a graphic using red dots on a map of zip code 60629. The map was a sea of red.
While by 2012 the national housing crisis had waned, Chicago Lawn and other Southwest Side communities continued to suffer the impact. Property values had dropped by 56 percent and hundreds of houses and apartments had been abandoned and become magnets for crime. Families lost homes, friends lost neighbors, schools lost students and communities lost population.
SWOP, and its 34 member institutions, understood the magnitude of the threat to their community and what was required was an effort that would need not only rehab houses, but to find buyers and renters and rebuild shaky businesses and institutions. At first SWOP turned to the state and federal government for help. Finding none, they turned to their own creativity and teamed with United Power for Action and Justice – an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation – and Brinshore Development to tackle the challenge before them.
SWOP raised $11 million for the initial effort, including $3 million from the Illinois Attorney General, $900,000 from the City of Chicago and $8.5 million from the Illinois Housing Development Authority in zero percent interest loans and Low Income Housing Tax Credits to acquire and rehab 100 units in an area bounded by 51st and 74th streets and Western and Kedzie, which in 2012 contained 673 vacant properties. The first 43 building renovations were completed by the end of 2016 with the other 37 to be completed by this summer.
The effort, however, is already transforming the area. The abandonment of homes and hemorrhaging of people has stopped. As hoped for, private developers are emulating SWOP’s efforts and buying and rehabbing other vacant buildings. And with the renewed activity, community life has been revived, as neighbors and institutions gained members and confidence. Not for the first time, SWOP is demonstrating how to rebuild a community by organizing.