Habitat for Humanity builds new, affordable homes in West Pullman

According to Census data released in April, Chicago lost population for the fourth straight year - with over 22,000 residents moving out in 2018. Vacant homes and lots have become the symbol for that declining population.

In the far south-side neighborhood of West Pullman, Habitat for Humanity Chicago is building affordable homes on vacant lots to fight back against the vacancy crisis.

"This is our project in West Pullman," said executive director Jennifer Parks, who was standing in the construction site of 12 future homes. "It's one of our focus neighborhoods. It's part of a larger project of investing into 46 homes here in Chicago."

As a group of volunteers finished the foundations of two homes on S. Emerald Avenue, new homeowner Erika Orozco moved in next door.

"It's not feel real. It's just I feel like I'm dreaming still," said Orozco.

A mother of seven, Orozco had just moved out of a small apartment with an exorbitant rent that she struggled to afford. That hardship was mirrored by the current situation of Uneshia Seals, who was part of the volunteer construction crew down the block.

"I'm living with a relative, and so my son and I share a room," said Seals, who was recently approved by Habitat as a future home buyer. "That's why I'm totally excited - he is as well - to have my own room and space."

Habitat for Humanity Chicago started their project in West Pullman after identifying high need, as well as a high potential for growth. They have already built and sold 18 homes, and more are currently under construction.

"(West Pullman) has 60 percent home ownership rate which is very high for a neighborhood. It also has a number of great amenities like the Kroc Community Center. It has a great West Pullman Park, a bike trail," said Parks. "Some of the challenges are is that the city is losing its population. And West Pullman is one of those neighborhoods that's been impacted by that... The safety is improving in this neighborhood, but as with many neighborhoods it has been an ongoing challenge."

To reduce cost and bureaucracy for those rehabbing vacant properties and rebuilding on open lots, the Chicago buildings department recently overhauled the city's building code.

"We want people in neighborhoods to feel safe and secure. We don't want them to be magnets for crime or bad things that can happen with a vacant buildings," said buildings commissioner Judy Frydland. "And also we don't want the buildings to deteriorate further to make it more difficult to rehab them and save them."

The building code reform followed two other cost-reduction moves from the department; rewriting the electrical code and eliminating restrictions of PVC plastic piping.

Price and efficiency are especially important for organizations like Habitat when considering the scope of the vacancy crisis in Chicago. Around 2,400 properties are currently registered as vacant with the city, although Frydland calls that number "a moving target."

Parks, who will soon expand Habitat's work to Greater Grand Crossing, hopes that the West Pullman project is just the beginning of development that will rejuvenate the entire neighborhood.

"A couple years ago, a gentleman stopped by the site. And he said, 'Nothing new was ever built here,'" Parks said. "Whether as a business or a homeowner, West Pullman's an amazing neighborhood... so we ask people to consider looking at what other neighborhoods to invest in."
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