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Aldermen broaden umbrella to save Rahm’s home-loan program for high-crime areas

The Auburn Gresham neighborhood. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

The Auburn Gresham neighborhood is among those targeted in a home-loan program designed to encourage some city employees to buy homes in certain areas and stabilize those neighborhoods. | Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

Two years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set aside $3 million to provide “forgivable,” $30,000 loans to police officers and firefighters in hopes it would stabilize high-crime neighborhoods.

The program has been a bust, with just 13 loans and two pending — either because the income ceiling is too low or the boundaries are too narrow.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Budget Committee moved to salvage the program by changing the name, broadening the umbrella of eligible recipients and expanding the geographic area where homes may be purchased.

Instead of confining the program to police officers, firefighters and paramedics in six police districts, the loans also will be made available to rank-and-file members of Laborers Locals 1001 and 1092.

Those unions represent several thousand employees of the city Department of Streets and Sanitation, Aviation and Water Management. Those unions have been among Emanuel’s biggest supporters — both financially, and in their willingness to agree to work rule and pension concessions.

Joe Healy, business manager of Laborers Local 1092, said he’s confident there will be plenty of takers.

“We’ve got over 450 members who live in those areas. Multiple members have been asking to be included in this program,” Healy said. “They are anchors of those communities already. They are anxious to put down roots and become homeowners in the communities they already live in.”

The name of the program will also change. It’s no longer the “Public Safety Office Homebuyers Assistance Program.” It’ll now be called “Community Connection Homebuyers Assistance.”

Details of the new and expanded targeted area are still in flux, under the ordinance championed by Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose impoverished ward will be home to the new $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park.

It simply allows for “such additional police districts and census tracts as shall be designated by” the city’s housing commissioner.

“We have some laborers coming on with the city who may want to take advantage of it. They’re coming into the apprenticeships program. They’ll now have an opportunity to be first-time homebuyers,” Mitts said Tuesday.

Mitts said she is also “open to having a conversation” with mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot about changing the eligibility requirements and raising the income ceiling needed to qualify for the $30,000 loans.

For now, the income ceiling remains 150 percent of the median area income. When the program was launched, that was roughly $82,950 a year for single officers and $118,500 a year for a family of four. That essentially confined the assistance to younger officers, which might have been part of the problem.

Eligible employees must secure a mortgage from a private lender to buy a single-family home or two-flat that would become their primary residence. They also must agree to live in the homes for the entire 10-year period.

If not, they are required to repay $3,000 for every year of the 10 years that they don’t live there.

The earlier program was confined to parts of six police districts that need both the economic shot in the arm and the added safety that comes with having police officers, firefighters and paramedics as residents.

Those neighborhoods included parts of Auburn-Gresham; Austin; Brighton Park; Chatham; East and West Garfield Park; Englewood and West Englewood; Gage Park; Greater Grand Crossing; Humboldt Park; New City, and North and South Lawndale.

When the program was launched, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) urged Emanuel to extend the incentive to “other areas that are now considered to be Tier 2 police districts.”

“There is crime being experienced in those districts. I call those communities ‘on the bubble.’ You want to be able to keep families in those communities. The extent to which the city shows its interest in putting resources in those community is very important,” Dowell said then.

Ald. Michael Scott (24th) has questioned how the city would “police the police” and make certain that officers are not “getting this $30,000, getting a home and renting it out.”

“This is an important program — especially in a community like mine where there is violence on a day-to-day basis,” Scott said on that day.

“To make sure that we have first responders there engaging with the community goes a long way to bridge the gap that we currently have between community and police, but also to stabilize communities like north Lawndale and East and West Garfield.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley tried a similar incentive in the early 1990s, with only mixed results.

Police officers buying homes for the first time in nine low- or moderate income neighborhoods were given $5,000 subsidies and required to make a down payment of just 3 percent of the purchase price.

Emanuel’s plan was more generous in hopes that the incentive would be enough to lure a fresh crop of newly hired police officers to buy homes in areas plagued by gang violence.

But, that plan plan barely moved the needle either, setting the stage for the changes made Tuesday.