Nonprofit converts vacant properties into affordable homes in Chicago Lawn neighborhood

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In the neighborhood of Chicago Lawn, the Southwest Organizing Project, or SWOP, is converting vacant properties into affordable houses. SWOP's work began in 2013, when they faced a seemingly insurmountable task: rehabilitate nearly 700 foreclosed properties within a mile-and-a-half square area.

For phase one, they started with a small focus region.

"We took a 20 square block area where there were 93 vacant and abandoned addresses," said executive director Jeff Bartow. "And we began to raise the resources to acquire properties and build them back."

SWOP has brought the number of vacant addresses down from 93 to eight within that target area. As they approach the end of phase one, SWOP will receive a $12 million grant on July 1 from the state's newly approved construction budget. That will enable them to reactivate 100 more Chicago Lawn properties.

Director of Vacant Property Reactivation Harry Meyer showed ABC 7 one renovated and one soon-to-be-renovated home. The transformation can be hard for buyers to believe, as is the final asking price.

"There's a gap between what we end up putting in there and what we can sell the houses for. We end up with a house that's a beautiful house, fully rehabbed," Meyer said. "The four homes we've sold so far have averaged ($120,000 to 150,000)."

For fitness and kickboxing instructor Jerry Moyano, who moved into his new home a year ago, SWOP provided the only option that was both affordable and desirable. His fully renovated house cost $140,000. After SWOP helped Moyano secure a $30,000 federal grant for investing in Chicago Lawn, he only need a $110,000 mortgage.

"My favorite thing about the home: it's totally remodeled," said Moyano. "That was my main concern buying a different home that wasn't totally rehabbed that I (could) afford, it would be a money pit. So when I saw this one, I automatically jumped on it."

His wife, Gloria Cruz, remembered looking at fixer-uppers that she wouldn't even consider. As soon as Cruz toured a SWOP home on S Mozart St., she urged her husband to submit an application. They moved in within weeks.

"We've been here for a year now, living in this house," Cruz said in Spanish. "We're living a peaceful and pleasant life."


"We knew from the beginning that you can't win on housing by solely focusing on housing. It had to be about reclaiming the neighborhood. It had to be about good schools and safe streets," Bartow said. "Since we began the work, violence is down 55 percent. It should be obvious, but... when you have a lot of vacants, bad things happen."

Chris Brown, director of operations, described SWOP's approach as "holistic." SWOP provides day-to-day support along with its long-term construction. Their work ranges from housing, education and immigration services, to violence prevention, improving health outcomes and a parent mentorship program.

Adriana Velazquez, an organizer focused on supporting immigrants, spoke about the impacts she's seen from SWOP's community work.

"If you look at the first stage of the Reclaiming Southwest campaign, we saw a huge change. Not just in the homes that were now reclaimed," Velazquez said. "But you saw the schools getting better, you saw people feeling more trust to be in their own neighborhood."

Anti-violence organizer Rafi Peterson has seen a similar impact on Chicago Lawn, which he called "a neighborhood transitioning into a community."

Although SWOP has a diverse staff by race, gender, and age, the three director-level staff know that they don't resemble many in the community they're working with.

"I am definitely sensitive to the fact that the neighborhood is different than we are as three white guys. But we come to work here for different reasons," said Meyer. "And part of my motivation is that I grew up in this neighborhood, or just a little north of here anyway."


In the city's buildings department, Commissioner Judy Frydland is hoping that some of her recent reforms will make life easier for organizations like SWOP.

Frydland recently oversaw the first comprehensive building code reform in 70 years, following up on two more cost-reduction moves for home renovation and construction: restructuring the electrical code and eliminating restrictions of PVC plastic piping.

The new building code will take effect in 2020, with the goal to dramatically lower the cost of home construction and renovation. That's especially valuable for SWOP, who Meyer said always tries to keep "the character of the property that we acquire."

In one recently rehabbed home, that meant extra work to maintain a meticulous garden in the front yard and to restore a set of bay windows at the front of the house. In Moyano's house, that meant unique, arching ceiling details in the living room and doorways.

The last resort, according to Frydland, is demolition.

"Most of the buildings that we do demolish are frame single-family homes. They don't weather bad weather as well as brick buildings because - once you start to get water in a frame house - you get mold and you get things that you just can't overcome," Frydland said. "But our brick buildings, our grey-stones, we really try to hang onto those until somebody can come along to rehab them."

Although they try to avoid demolitions, the city tore down 460 foreclosed properties in 2017, followed by 515 in 2018.

In Chicago Lawn, most vacant properties are historic brick bungalows. Just as they were in 2013, SWOP is still aiming to restore every last one.

"If families can have a stable home. If the neighborhoods look well, healthy, and there are resources there, then children beyond today are going to have a great experience and are going to be better members of society in the future," said Velazquez.
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