In 1980, the population of the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side was 138,000. Today, it’s about 95,000.
During the same period, the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side dropped in population from 59,000 to 25,000, while adjacent West Englewood dropped from 62,000 to about 30,000.
People fled for all of the obvious reasons. They wanted safer streets, better schools and access to jobs. Many left to pursue the middle-class American Dream of a nice house in the suburbs with a two-car garage and a big backyard.
But amidst the many efforts underway to save these communities — including smarter policing, direct outreach to young people at risk and new investments like the Whole Foods and the new high school in Englewood — one missing piece has been people: Chicago must find a way to attract people back to these neighborhoods.
The answer, as the legendary godfather Vito Corleone might say, is to give them an offer they can’t refuse.
Given the violence, it’s not an easy sell, but both neighborhoods have real assets. For one thing, both have easy access to public transit and highways. The Eisenhower Expressway is just a mile south of Austin and the Dan Ryan is just a mile east of Englewood.
Englewood is a short ride away from Hyde Park with all of its cultural benefits, from museums and the lakefront to restaurants and the University of Chicago.
Austin is a short hop to suburban Oak Park, offering everyday amenities that middle-class people like, from shopping to restaurants to architectural tours. Just a mile or so east of Austin is one of the city’s greatest cultural treasures, the Garfield Park Conservatory.
In addition to the new Englewood High School, the neighborhood boasts a selective enrollment high school, Lindblom College Prep, and several high-performing charter high schools. The Austin community has a handful of solidly-performing schools and there is no reason they couldn’t be better with new and involved parents.
So, what would it take to get 4,000 young middle-class families to move into these neighborhoods? The answer, or at least part of it, is affordable, high-quality housing.
Today, the median home sale in Chicago is $278,000 and the median listing is $339,000. Many Chicago neighborhoods are out-of-reach for young people starting out. So why not find a way to lure them into these neighborhoods?
Chicago could use tax increment financing dollars to work with non-profit developers to subsidize the construction of 4,000 new units of single-family housing on city-owned vacant land. With zero land-acquisition costs, the construction price could be held under $200,000.
The total cost would be about $800 million, which is considerably less than the city is investing in the Lincoln Yards development on the North Side. The deal easily could be structured so that the costs are shared by the city and the developers would make a modest profit.
To find home buyers, target city employees who are required, by ordinance, to live in the city — perhaps starting with teachers and police officers, some of whom may already work in the neighborhoods. Build as close to public transit as possible and develop a neighborhood security plan.
Sell the houses at cost. If that’s too high, help cover the down-payment. Still no takers? Help pay their college debt or give them a 10-year property tax exemption, something Philadelphia has done.
As Mike Ditka might say, do whatever it takes.
An influx of 2,000 middle-class homeowners into Englewood and another 2,000 into Austin, especially if it included some police officers, could significantly strengthen both communities. New business would follow — grocery stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, coffee shops, banks, pharmacies, night clubs and maybe a big box store or two.
All of these new homeowners would have steady, middle-class jobs. They would be hiring local kids to baby-sit their children and mow their lawns. They would be joining, starting or leading community and church groups.
Eventually, surrounding property values would rise as more people move in, lured by the relatively low housing cost. Sure, this would prompt concerns about gentrification, but that’s solvable. Include some subsidized housing in the plan.
At the end of the day, saving neighborhoods like Englewood and Austin comes down to one thing above all: people. Without new people, the neighborhoods will struggle. With people, they have a chance.
With new, affordable, high-quality housing, it can happen.
Peter Cunningham is a public affairs consultant who has also worked in government and politics.
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