6300 block of South Campbell Avenue
Community activists have identified stretches of chronically vacant properties on the Southwest Side, like the 6300 block of South Campbell Avenue. They are trying to stabilize the area by attracting new homeowners and long-term renters. [Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

During a recent housing workshop held at Gage Park High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, David McDowell asked a small group of nearby residents, “If I had $1 million to invest in a neighborhood, can you tell me why I should invest it here instead of another neighborhood?”

It took a few minutes for someone to answer. “We are centrally located,” one woman said. Then another woman added: “We have diverse schools.”

McDowell, the senior organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, known as SWOP, scribbled the answers. He’s keeping a list of why people like living in the neighborhood as part of a plan to stabilize the community through matching potential homeowners with vacant properties.

The population has been declining in neighborhoods like Gage Park and Chicago Lawn, in no small part because of the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

Banks have held on to vacant properties for years hoping their value would increase, but the homes have sat empty losing value each year. After the height of the crisis, the federal government poured millions into the hardest-hit neighborhoods to entice developers to rehab vacant properties and sell them. But despite the investment, it was hard to find buyers because few people wanted to move into those areas.

And now, many of these vacant properties are worth as little as $20,000, so investors would take a big hit if they rehabbed them and tried to sell them.

“We had to step in and do something,” McDowell said.

SWOP started raising money to restore the homes and create a market for them. But unlike the federal program, which focused on rehabbing vacant properties, the nonprofit organization focuses on identifying people in the neighborhood who want to stay and outsiders who would have a vested interest in restoring the community.

SWOP has secured about $8 million to buy vacant properties and has partnered with a private developer, Brinshore Development, to rehab them. The goal is to sell the properties for about $80,000 each to families that want to stay in the neighborhood—part of the organization’s “Reclaiming Southwest Chicago” campaign.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan promised SWOP $3 million from a predatory lending settlement. The state pledged the nonprofit an additional $4 million, and the city promised another $900,000. The organization is still waiting for the money and hasn’t yet bought any properties.

The plan is to rehab 120 units, including multifamily dwellings and flats. SWOP hopes to attract other investors who will then buy more properties, McDowell said.

Tomas, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant, has lived in Chicago for 20 years. He is the kind of person SWOP is hoping to match with a new home.

He, his wife and three children live in a small two-bedroom apartment in Little Village. “It would mean a lot for me and my children to have something we can call our own,” he said in Spanish.

Tomas, who declined to give his full name for fear of being deported, works two jobs and has been able to save enough for a down payment. He has a temporary government-issued number he uses to pay his taxes. Legally, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can buy property.

In Chicago Lawn, there are hundreds of bank-owned vacant properties to choose from. About 585 properties have been empty since 2008 and another 1,025 homes are facing foreclosure, according to court records.

Norma Rollins, a Gage Park resident whose house is in foreclosure, attended McDowell’s housing workshop at Gage Park High School. She is hopeful that the organization’s focus on people will help restore the neighborhood.

“I remember the day I moved in. The front yard was green, and my children played with other kids,” said Rollins, who moved to the neighborhood in 2001.

Today, about four or five properties on her block are vacant. These empty houses have been turned into drug stash houses, and they attract gang members, she said. “I felt unsafe letting my kids walk” near the vacant properties, she added.

Rollins has fallen behind on payments on her adjustable rate loan. She said she now owes $180,000 on a property that is not worth half that amount.

She doesn’t want to walk away from the house where her children grew up and the place she calls home. “I want to help keep the neighborhood strong,” she said. “We need to invest in our community.”

Headshot of María Inés Zamudio

María Inés Zamudio

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...