Chicago program renovates blight while giving at-risk youth homes, jobs & skills

In Chicago, Illinois, three critical problems are being solved–or at least ameliorated–by a single new program:

  1. A large inventory of vacant homes, mostly left over from the Bush administration’s Great Recession, which attract crime and thus devitalize neighborhoods;
  2. A shortage of affordable housing; and
  3. A high rate of recidivism among people getting out of prison, due to a combination of homelessness, lack of skills, and a paucity of available jobs.

The new initiative, called Chicago Neighborhood Rebuild, is addressing all three challenges simultaneously. It’s remeniscent of Roseanne Haggerty‘s brilliant Common Ground program in New York City, described in the 2008 book, Rewealth (McGraw-Hill). In that program, homeless folks renovated an abandoned hotel, creating living space for themselves while learning valuable new “restoration economy” skills, and earning money for food and shelter during the renovation.

In exchange for a reduced interest rate on acquisition and renovation loans (not to mention doing the city planning department a favor by reducing blight), the developers of the sites will allow the Chicago Neighborhood Rebuild program’s crews to do the pre-construction work on each site, such as debris removal and landscaping.

At the same time, participants get free workshops on problem solving, team work, workplace communication skills, financial literacy, job interview training and more. As much as possible, training will occur on-site.

This pilot program is a win-win-win. It creates employment opportunities for at-risk youth, supports community stability and turns vacant homes from community burdens into neighborhood strengths,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “By working with local contractors and developers, the pilot initiative will help support community improvement and homeownership, while driving neighborhood economic development.”

Workers will earn at least the Chicago minimum wage, currently $11 an hour, and the program will also pay for an on-site crew supervisor, career development workshops and case management. Participants will remain employed under the program until supervisors can place them into full-time, unsubsidized employment or the two-year pilot timeline runs out.

The goal is to pull 200 folks off the streets, replace a gun with a hammer, and to get people into a training space on the project sites,” says Calvin Holmes, president of the Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF), which is partnering with the city to run the $2 million pilot program.

Once you’re in the program, you’re immediately given on-the-job work experience, wraparound service management, and your job supervisor will continually try to find you a permanent placement while you are having the exposure on the construction job site,” Holmes continued. “Most job training programs have a train-and-place model, but here we’re inverting that.

For over 25 years, the Chicago Community Loan Fund has been providing flexible, affordable and responsible financing and technical assistance for community stabilization and redevelopment efforts, and for initiatives that benefit low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, families and individuals throughout metropolitan Chicago.

CCLF was founded in 1991 by a group of visionary social-investment advocates. Their aim was to create a nimble, flexible nonprofit lender who would fill the community development credit gaps as they emerged across the city and region.

In particular, CCLF was created to ensure that Chicagoland community redevelopers (including small and emerging groups) would have a lender to turn to for harder-to-underwrite projects and enterprises.

Affordable homeownership and jobs are the keys to strengthening a community,” concluded Holmes. “This program will bring together a broad coalition to rebuild homes and neighborhoods.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Community Loan Fund.

See Next City article of Oscar Perry Abello.

See the Chicago Community Loan Fund website.

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