In many ways, Chicago in 1988 was a city afraid of change. Crime was on the rise, headlines blared news of political turmoil around the world, and the election of a black mayor had stirred white homeowners’ fears that neighbors could send their property values plummeting.

Chicago in 1988 also was the city that created the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program, a fund that taxes 48,000 households from Austin to Edgebrook to pay back homeowners for lost equity should there property drop in value at the time of resale.

OPINION

Of course, the fear that shocked the program into existence never materialized. Nearly three decades after the fund’s creation, the Northwest Side is thriving without having made use of the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program. We’re growing diverse communities, and property values are climbing to the point where new construction of homes, schools and community centers can barely keep up.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program is sitting on an idle trove of more than $9.6 million, and it’s set to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars more from homeowners each year, at the tune of $125,000 collected annually through a tax levy.

The people paying into this fund include seniors who have owned their homes for 30 years but could never afford to modernize their kitchens. They’re single parents weighing whether they can save enough to build flood protection in their basements. They’re paying extra property taxes every year, all to feed a kitty that’s paid out just five time in 29 years, according to community residents.

Five.

It’s time to put that money back to work for them.

My colleagues and I have partnered with the Northwest Side Housing Center to track down the gatekeepers of this growing fund, to encourage them to open it up for loans that could help homeowners stay on their feet. Thanks in part to relentless advocacy by Northwest Siders, our counterparts in Springfield passed House Bill 3193 last year, clearing the way for the program to issue low-cost loans for home improvement projects and a foreclosure prevention loan program..

For an idea of how this might look, we need look only a few miles down Pulaski Road, where the Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program has helped hundreds of homeowners secure zero-interest loans for home improvement projects of up to $10,000 each. Proactive leaders and diligent local lenders there have sustained an investment model that’s productive, equitable and transparent.

By comparison, the Northwest Side’s equivalent hasn’t held a meeting in years, lacking enough members for an active quorum. Few of them still live in the city, and together they don’t reflect the demographic melting pot of today’s Northwest Side.

The good news is that we stand ready with a list of potential new commissioners for the fund. They are eager to harness this program for the utmost benefit of homeowners in our seven wards. Our nominees are women and men, real estate professionals and Local School Council members, black, white and Latino. All of them own homes inside the program’s taxing district.

We’re confident in their ability to modernize and jump-start this program, and the City Council is prepared to undertake a swift and thorough confirmation process to put them to work.

But first, state law mandates that the mayor’s office vet and approve these possible commissioners.

Having secured a commitment in August from then-Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp to support a new board, we’re hopeful the mayor will recognize the strength of our nominees and confirm their eligibility by New Year’s. That would put the council in position to begin hearings as soon as we return to work in January, with our sights set on a revitalized Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program issuing its first loans by the start of construction season in March.

Today, we don’t fear change in Chicago. We demand it. And by taking this important step to better channel our constituents’ hard-earned tax dollars, we’ll help build a more prosperous and welcoming Northwest Side for all it residents.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, is chair of the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.