Credit Richard Townsell and allies involved in revitalizing North Lawndale with challenging a couple of myths about neighborhood improvement.
One is that any coordinated investment in an area, anything that tries to draw in new residents, must smack of gentrification. The other is the only answer to the shortage of affordable housing is building subsidized apartments in desirable parts of town.
Townsell, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corp., is deep in an initiative to build 250 single-family homes in North Lawndale in three to five years. The effort involves United Power for Action and Justice and the nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, among others.
They would be built on vacant lots the city owns, a legacy of decades of neglect and sheer abuse by people, lenders and public agencies. To keep the houses affordable, Townsell has secured substantial help from City Hall and the state amid hopes the program, unusual because of its scale, can eventually produce 1,000 new homes on both the South and West sides.
“I think the template that we’re following in North Lawndale can be replicated elsewhere,” he said. His goals are to stabilize the community, drawing in more people who have a personal stake in its improvement and support local businesses, while giving African Americans a shot at building intergenerational wealth through homeownership.
Such talk elicits a chorus of naysaying. Critics on Twitter and other forums questioned demand for the homes because of crime, failing schools, the whole litany of urban woes.
Townsell and other advocates of the North Lawndale plan see it as a crime-fighting strategy as well. More homeowners mean more nosy neighbors, more eyes looking out the front windows, more complaints about the gang on the corner or the trash in the lot down the street.
Townsell got an earful from a naysayer last June when North Lawndale hosted Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials to announce the new homes. A guy with his own bullhorn tried to drown out some of the speakers at a news conference, arguing the homes will be sold to outsiders and be unaffordable for community residents.
“If you’re not getting any criticism, you’re not doing a whole lot,” Townsell said.
The design of the North Lawndale program is all about holding down the price of three-bedroom homes. It starts with getting the lots from the city for $1 each, their titles scrubbed of back taxes and liens.
Then you add the city’s pledge of tax increment financing — public funding — to fix water and sewer hookups, rip out old foundations and do anything else to make the property suitable for construction.
Throw in $10 million of state subsidies that Illinois Senate President Don Harmon attributed to incessant lobbying by United Power, a coalition of neighborhood and religious groups. Then $12 million from banks, maybe some of them guilt-ridden, and foundations for no-interest revolving construction loans.
The aim is to put a price of $220,000 on the homes, give or take a little. Townsell said that should make them affordable, with mortgages often less than rent, for families earning $45,000 to $60,000 per year.
Amy Totsch, senior organizer at United Power, said she expects the city to approve the TIF allocation in November. The city already has approved the land sales for the first 100 homes. She said the targeted area for construction runs from Roosevelt Road to about 21st Street, Albany to Christiana avenues.
The emphasis on single-family homes challenges thinking in some circles. Some urban planners view single-family homes as an evil to be stamped out or at least cut back, something that promotes segregation and urban sprawl. They ignore that many buyers seek out low-density areas and want them to stay that way.
Townsell, a community activist for 30 years, said his group has backed more than 400 units of multi-family housing. The single-family homes will be an extra element, he said, a basis for more grass-roots force to get things done.
“Power precedes policy. Always has, always will,” Townsell once told an academic audience.
I asked him to expand on the idea. “There are a lot of policy wonks in Chicagoland that come up with great ideas, but they have to have the muscle to push them through,” he said.
Townsell said that without mobilizing residents, the neighborhood never would have gotten a renovated library in 2019 to replace one that “looked like a prison.”
Would he ever seek public office? Townsell sighed at the question, then answered with a line whose sentiment, if not the exact words, he attributed to the late Ed Chambers, a Saul Alinsky acolyte who ran the Industrial Areas Foundation, a training ground for activists.
“Electoral politics is the lowest form of democracy,” Townsell said.
It’s a bold statement from somebody needing subsidies from government bodies. But what good are politicians if you can’t squeeze them?