Six items were on the agenda of Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s first town hall meeting – held at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center on May 6 – but only two held the attention of the some four dozen people in the audience: jobs and crime.
The City is beginning to administer the $18 million it received in federal Neighborhood Stabilization funds – the NSP2 grant – under which 100 foreclosed or vacant properties in two specified census tracts on the south and west sides of town will be purchased, rehabbed and resold as affordable units. In its application for the NSP2 grant the City designated Brinshore Development LLC as its private partner in the venture. The City has said Brinshore is “once of the Midwest’s largest and most successful housing development firms in the affordable-housing market.”
According to federal guidelines, at least 25 percent of the work must be contracted to local businesses and workers.
In late April the City held an information meeting for local contractors to learn how to apply for work on the projects as subcontractors. Many questions at the May 6 town hall meeting centered on how minority workers and businesses from the West Side – where many of the vacant and foreclosed properties lie – could be hired for the project.
Some expressed concern – some, skepticism – about the 25-percent guideline and whether the West Side residents would be hired to help rebuild the area.
“The reason the City got this grant was because of the suffering of this neighborhood,” said Lonnie Wilson, a long-time resident of Evanston. He said he was afraid this process “may come down the way all things come down … even if the community and the politicians make a vow to exceed the federal guideline.”
Bennett Johnson said, “The City of Chicago received $98 million [in NSP2 funds]. They spread the wealth around by hiring minority lawyers, contractors, etc.”
Calvin Lynn, who said he has been a contractor in the area for several years, asked, “Will Brinshore use a transparent system to hire minorities and Evanston-based businesses?”
Mayor Tisdahl said that Lloyd Shepard, business development director for the City, would help to ensure the process was fair. She added, “Call the mayor.”
In response to other questions from the audience, Sarah Flax of the City’s Community Development Department said that local real estate agents could be involved in helping find buyers for the rehabbed properties, but not in the original acquisition. She said banks own many of the properties and that bank representatives, rather than real estate companies, would be involved in many of the purchases.
“Brinshore must acquire the properties at 1 percent below the appraised value,” she added.
No community housing development organizations (CHDOs) will be allowed to work on the project, Ms. Flax said. Keith Banks of Evanston Community Development Organization and Betty Ester of the Citizens Lighthouse Community Land Trust both voiced objections to that prohibition.
Ms. Flax also said the properties, once rehabbed and sold, will likely be required to remain “affordable” for 15 years, the City’s typical period for retaining affordability on housing it has subsidized. In other words, a purchaser of one of the rehabbed units – who must be eligible according to income and other guidelines – must keep it affordable for 15 years by, for example,remaining in the property or selling it to an income-eligible buyer.
In its application for NSP2 funds, the City had requested $41 million for a two-pronged approach to addressing the problems of areas of Evanston affected by multiple foreclosures: 1) the purchase, rehab and resale of about 100 existing properties and 2) the construction of a new 98-unit mixed-income housing complex. The grant, less than requested, specified that no funds be used for new construction until the 100 existing properties had been purchased, rehabbed and resold as affordable. City officials have said they would try to leverage other public and private funds to construct the new project, which would be located on Emerson Street, west of Green Bay Road.
Crime was the other major topic of the evening. Officer Tanya Nobel who has been a beat officer on the West Side for several years, said property crimes are on the rise. “Purses hanging on the back of a chair, laptops left for a few minutes in the library, electronic items left in a car – all these are crimes of opportunity,” she said. Crimes like these, as well as burglaries, are increasing in Evanston and in most other communities.
“In the past two weeks there has been an increase in pickpocketing,” said Officer Nobel. Pickpocketing goes back to the turn of the century. These people are trained and are hard to recognize.”
One trend Officer Nobel called “very inspiring” is the formation of neighborhood watch groups. She said many two-income families do not really know their neighbors because they are at work all day. She said the next step after forming watch groups is for neighbors really to get to know one another: “It is necessary that we weave the social fabric back into communication,” she said.
Mayor Tisdahl also touched on other topics: the City’s application to be a Google City, which would help attract businesses to Evanston; Evanston Day in Springfield, which she said showed a unity between Northwestern University and the City; and the plans to attract new customers to whom the City could sell water.
In the end, she said, “Evanston Day in Springfield, where there is no money, will not save us. Google Day will not save us. Selling water to other communities will not save us. We will save ourselves.”