WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — Foreclosures may be at a seven-year low citywide, but the economic ripple of vacant homes still is being felt in neighborhoods like West Humboldt Park.
They’re called “zombie properties” — vacant and distressed buildings that often stand in the way of recovery in low- and middle-income areas.
A small crew of construction workers in one such area aims to reverse that problem with “artistic board-ups” — visually interesting or creative alternatives to the plywood and raw beams often used to secure vacant properties.
The grant-funded project is part of a wider neighborhood stabilization program in West Humboldt Park, according to Chris Toepfer, executive director of The Neighborhood Foundation.
“This is a neighborhood where it's difficult to sell a house,” Toepfer said Wednesday, as two men worked in front of a home in the 600 block of North Homan Avenue, a two-story greystone that would cost around $200,000 to build. “This is a different way to board up buildings. The idea is to stabilize the vacant buildings to make it more attractive to buyers. The other component is local hiring.”
Homing in on West Humboldt Park
The artistic board-ups are part of Chicago’s Micro Market Recovery Program, a Department of Planning and Development initiative aimed at 13 neighborhoods with a high number of foreclosures and the potential for recovery, including Northwest Side neighborhoods like Austin, Belmont Cragin and Garfield Park.
Through the $25,000 grant, The Neighborhood Foundation is partnering with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago and a number of local community groups to combat crime, unemployment and economic depression in the area, beginning with a 32-square-block area in West Humboldt Park between Augusta Boulevard, Franklin Street, Central Park Avenue and Kedzie Avenue.
“We see home ownership as a neighborhood revitalization tool,” said Neighborhood Housing Services director John Groene. “We see this as preventing demolition and improving the brightness of the neighborhood to create that positive ripple effect.”
The artistic board-ups deter vandalism, give the block a revitalized appearance and prevent demolition, Toepfer said Wendesday, as Humboldt Park natives and former residents Andre Bundy, 47, and Gary Bosque, 49, worked to install a set of prepainted artistic boards on the vacant West Humboldt Park home.
The alternative often is a costly rehab or teardown after a long vacancy. Scavengers and metal thieves make use of the unsecured dwellings at further structural cost to the building.
“When a building goes vacant, they immediately become magnets for crime,” Groene said. “For hundreds of dollars they're doing tens of hundreds in damage.”
In addition to looters looking for salvageable metal, homeless people looking for a warm place for the night are also drawn to the properties — a situation the three-man crew stumbled across in its first week at work.
“We had to tell people to leave,” Bundy said, noting another case on Jan. 12, when three men were found dead in a vacant home 4 miles miles north in Avondale.
"That could have been me," Bundy said, if he hadn't found employment with the Cara Program.
Filling vacant homes
Part of the mission is to coordinate with the city, nonprofit and community groups in foreclosure prevention, counseling services and to aid in buying and selling homes, and according to Groene, and it’s producing results.
The program began with 123 vacant properties on 32 square blocks in August 2011, and is now down to 90, he said. In the process, the West Humboldt Park-based group has helped dozens of low-income residents become homeowners in West Humboldt Park.
"The Cara Program changed my life,” Bundy said, noting that the employment service agency partners with Neighborhood Housing Services, the Micro Market Recovery Program and The Neighborhood Foundation to provide jobs to unemployed local residents.
“Everything is boarded up, and the city is waiting to tear it down. [The unsecured buildings] keep people from coming into the neighborhood,” he said. “I grew up in the Humboldt Park area — I’m glad to come back. My biggest concern is for my neighborhood to be safe for kids to walk through.”
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