Coming together to address vacant properties: Leaders share successes at RHP conference

Vacant homes are posing obstacles to recovery for communities throughout the Chicago region and beyond. With more than 360,000 foreclosures filed in the Chicago region in the past five years, it is clear that the scale of the problem is too large for any one entity to solve on its own. Leaders from across the region came together at a conference hosted by the Regional Housing Partnership (formerly known as the Regional Home Ownership Preservation Initiative) to discuss how they have been working with new and old partners to ensure that communities thrive in the wake of the foreclosure crisis.
 
Antonio Riley, the Midwest Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), affirmed the importance of collaborative efforts like Regional Housing Partnership to the success of programs like the Cook County and South Suburban Land Banks, the Sustainable Communities Initiative, and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan followed Riley and emphasized that while we have made much progress, much work is left to be done to promote neighborhood recovery. Madigan recently awarded resources from the National Mortgage Foreclosure Settlement to organizations working to prevent foreclosures and stabilize communities. The process rewarded applications that incorporated collaborative efforts that would yield long-term viability. “We don’t have the resources for turf battles,” said Madigan.
 
Juanita Irizarry of the Chicago Community Trust kicked off the first panel by laying out the challenges faced by the region, noting that properties that have been vacant for more than two years in the Chicago six county region grew by over 180 percent from 2008 to 2012. Collaborative responses made some of the most headway in addressing vacant homes, Irizarry said.
 
Since the start of the foreclosure crisis, many local governments passed stronger laws requiring maintenance of vacant homes. Those laws lack teeth, however, unless governments have the capacity to enforce them. Hildy Kingma from the Village of Park Forest started off the first panel by presenting an emerging partnership to pilot how four south suburban municipalities can share code enforcement resources, supported by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, the Center for Community Progress, and the law firm Ancel Glink.  Joseph van Dyk from Gary, Indiana, discussed how Gary is partnering with the University of Chicago and web developers LocalData to enhance vacant buildings data that can inform smarter policy responses.
 
Paula Brkich of the HOPE Fair Housing Center demonstrated how strong regulatory action can translate into better outcomes for communities. As a result of the settlement between Wells Fargo and the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) regarding disparate maintenance practices of bank-owned homes in communities of color, HOPE and other NFHA partners are disbursing the funds for community revitalization work. One of the major vacant building successes in the Chicago region is the establishment of the Cook County Land Bank, which could not have happened without a collaborative process, said Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer. Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of Chicago Executive Director Ed Jacob closed the first panel by presenting a partnership between NHS and Kane County to provide down payment assistance for buyers of vacant homes in Elgin, Carpentersville, East Dundee, and West Dundee.
 
Alan Berube of the Brooking Institution presented findings from his recent book co-authored by Elizabeth Kneebone, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” at his lunchtime keynote address. Berube surveyed responses to suburban poverty across the nation and noted that the Chicago region has some of the most forward-looking collaborative efforts in the country. In order to adequately address suburban poverty, Berube said that successful responses would need to include large-scale operations, collaboration and integration, and strategic funding.
 
The second panel highlighted how the Micro Market Recovery Program (MMRP) is coordinating partners and disparate funding sources to tackle vacant properties in targeted geographies in order to amplify their overall impact. Anthony Simpkins, Deputy Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, presented MMRP’s core strategies, which includes returning properties to productive use by aggressive code enforcement, marketing key properties, and encouraging homeownership and keeping people in their homes by reducing maintenance costs and targeting vulnerable homeowners before they enter foreclosure. The remaining panelists, including John Groene of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Angela Maurello of Community Investment Corporation, and Chet Jackson of the West Humboldt Park Development Council, focused on MMRP’s efforts to prevent foreclosures, attract new homebuyers, stabilize multifamily buildings on corner lots, and promote commercial development in West Humboldt Park.
 
Dory Rand of Woodstock Institute closed out the day by inviting participants to reflect on the progress made towards revitalizing Chicago region neighborhoods, as well as the remaining challenges faced by communities. She also announced that Regional HOPI is rebranding as the Regional Housing Partnership in order to convey the need for comprehensive regional housing solutions, including affordable rental housing as well as homeownership. Regional Housing Partnership will invite key stakeholders, policymakers, and community leaders to a planning session in the spring of 2014 to rethink how collaboration can move the region’s housing efforts forward. Sign up for the Regional Housing Partnership mailing list to learn more about our evolving identity.