Homeowners could bring pride and power to North Lawndale

Credit Richard Townsell and allies involved in revitalizing North Lawndale by challenging a few myths about improving the neighborhood.

One is that any coordinated investment in an area, anything that tries to attract new residents, must smell of gentrification. The second is the only answer to the lack of affordable housing is to build subsidized apartments in attractive neighborhoods.

Townsell, CEO 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, among others, United Power for Action and Justice and nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

They would be built on vacant land owned by the city, a legacy of decades of neglect and outright abuse by people, lenders and government agencies. To keep the houses affordable, Townsell has secured significant help from City Hall and the state amid hopes that the program, unusually because of its scale, could eventually produce 1,000 new homes on both the south and west sides.

“I think the template that we follow in North Lawndale can be copied elsewhere,” he said. His goal is to stabilize the community, attract more people who have a personal interest in its improvement and support local businesses, while giving African Americans the opportunity to build wealth between generations through home ownership.

Such talk evokes a chorus of no. Critics on Twitter and other forums questioned the demand for housing due to crime, failing schools, the whole litany of cities.

Townsell and other proponents of the North Lawndale Plan also see it as a crime-fighting strategy. More homeowners means more curious neighbors, more eyes looking out the windows in front, more complaints about the gang on the corner or the garbage on the grounds down the street.

Townsell got an ear of a no-say in June last year 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 press conference, claiming the homes will be sold to outsiders and be unaffordable to local residents.

Two model houses in the 1600 block on South Avers Avenue were shown in June as examples of the North Lawndale plan.  A man standing on the tree stump shouted criticism of the program.

Two model houses in the 1600 block on South Avers Avenue were shown in June as examples of the North Lawndale plan. A man standing on the tree stump shouted criticism of the program.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“If you don’t get any criticism, you don’t do a whole lot,” Townsell said.

The design of the North Lawndale program is about keeping the price of three-bedroom homes down. It starts with getting the tickets from the city for $ 1 each, their titles cleared of residual taxes and lien.

Then you add the city’s promise of tax increase financing – public financing – to repair water and sewer connections, tear down old foundations and do everything else to make the property suitable for construction.

Throw in $ 10 million in state subsidies that Illinois Senate President Don Harmon attributed to the relentless lobbying of United Power, a coalition of neighborhoods and religious groups. Then $ 12 million from banks, perhaps some of them guilty, and the basis for interest-free revolving construction loans.

The goal is to put a price of $ 220,000 on the homes, give or take a little. Townsell said it should make them affordable, with mortgages often less than rent, for families earning $ 45,000 to $ 60,000 a year.

Amy Totsch, senior organizer at United Power, said she expects the city to approve the TIF award in November. The city has already approved the land sale 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 see single-family homes as an evil that must be eradicated or at least cut down, something that promotes separation and urban sprawl. They ignore the fact 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 supported more than 400 units of apartment buildings. The single-family homes will be an added element, he said, a basis for more grassroots power to get things done.

“Power precedes politics. Always has, always will,” Townsell once told an academic audience.

I asked him to elaborate on the idea. “There are a lot of political wonks in Chicagoland who come up with good ideas, but they have to have the muscles to push them through,” he said.

Townsell said without mobilizing residents, the neighborhood would never have had a renovated library in 2019 to replace one that “looked like a prison.”

Would he ever seek a public office? Townsell sighed over the question, then answered with a line whose feelings, 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.

“Election politics is the lowest form of democracy,” Townsell said.

It’s a bold statement from someone who needs subsidies from government agencies. But what good are politicians if you can’t push them?

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