"If I were a kid walking through here to the Nicholson school, and 60 percent of what I'm walking past is vacant or abandoned, what does it do to the psyche of that kid?" says Nancy Hughes Moyer, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Illinois. "We want to bring rooftops back to these blocks."
VOAI plans to break ground in December on some of the 16 lots it acquired Oct. 16 for $1 each from the city of Chicago. All within a six-block area of Peoria, Green and Sangamon streets, the scattered lots are within a block and a half of Hope Manor II, a 73-unit rental complex for veterans and their families that VOAI opened in October 2014 at 6002 S. Halsted St.
While VOAI, founded in 1896, is at its base a social services group and not a developer or landlord, Hughes Moyer says, "we know that whatever other problems you have, making sure you have stable housing is part of solving them." The group operates two other rental housing facilities for veterans, in Humboldt Park and Joliet, with a combined total, including the Englewood facility, of 220 units.
The 33 apartments in Hope Manor Village, all two-bedrooms, will not be exclusively for veterans but will be open to all renters who meet the city's income standards for affordable housing. That's a little less than $27,000 for a family of four, who Hughes Moyer says are the likely tenants of a two-bedroom. Rents will average $800 a month, she says, and the first units should be ready for occupancy by summer.
The mix sounds right for Englewood, says Perdure Carter, an agent with Dream Spots Leasing who focuses on the neighborhood. He has no involvement with the project.
"Renters in Englewood want to live in smaller buildings instead of a courtyard building," Carter says, "because you know who your neighbors are. It's not like living with 40 different personalities," which he says is fraught with risk in an area where the problem of violence is acute.
Filling in vacant lots with new construction will help nearby properties such as the two-flat greystone Carter has listed for sale at $160,000 on Sangamon Street just outside the Hope Manor Village zone.
"The major reason people don't buy in Englewood is violence," Carter says, "but next after that is the vacant lots and boarded-up properties. Nobody wants to invest in a neighborhood where people just litter and loiter."
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Englewood was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by disinvestment and decline. Then came the housing crisis of the mid-2000s. In 2008, at the height of the foreclosure crisis, 1 in 10 properties in Englewood were in foreclosure, according to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. That was the highest in the city and came when 2.9 of every 100 properties citywide were in foreclosure.
Drugs, crime and violence swept in, and forced demolitions of derelict buildings surged. The result is a landscape that has so many empty spaces that this city neighborhood often looks more unbuilt than built.
Englewood has the most vacant lots in the city. They present "an opportunity for us to help some of the families out there have a nice, affordable place to raise a family," says Kevin Freeman, a VOAI staffer who's overseeing much of the Hope Manor Village work. And, Hughes Moyer says, filling empty lots means "you're not displacing people who are here."
The notion of intentionally avoiding displacement shows "they want the existing community to benefit," says Michael Johnson, project manager for the Englewood quality-of-life planning initiative at Teamwork Englewood. While he hasn't been involved with VOAI, he says, other parts of Teamwork Englewood provided feedback on the Hope Manor Village concept. Another hopeful sign is that the $800-a-month rents "aren't greedy," he says. "They come in at the lower end of what you can do when you're using tax credits."
VOAI is in negotiations to construct a commercial building, on Halsted immediately south of Hope Manor II, that will house a day care center, fitness center and its own headquarters. VOAI will move from its current office space on Polk Street in the South Loop. The group hopes to start construction by late 2020 and have it complete by early 2022, when its Polk Street lease is up.