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Can One House Turn Around A Whole Block?

City officials, neighbors, hope an $18-million federal grant will help stabilize two neighborhoods hardest-hit by foreclosures in Evanston.

When one single-family home on Leland Avenue fell into foreclosure, the effects were felt around the block. 

The awning at 1733 Leland started falling off, the owners moved out, and the renters who moved in didn’t keep up the property. 

“We received a lot of complaints about this house,” says Ike Dickson, former president of the West End Area block club. “It really started to become in disrepair.”

Two years later, the one-story step ranch has been transformed, with a new roof, a landscaped front yard and a completely renovated interior. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and other local politicians toured 1733 Leland Ave. on Thursday, to see firsthand how the city of Evanston is spending an $18-million neighborhood stabilization grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

“One lighted house on a block can really make a difference,” Schakowsky said. “It also proves how public-private partnerships can really work.” 

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, HUD granted nearly $2 billion to 56 municipalities and consortiums around the country. Evanston was one of just three grantees total in the state of Illinois, along with the city of Chicago and the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation. 

In Evanston, the money is targeted at two census tracts that were hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis: one that falls mostly in the fifth ward, and another that falls mostly in the eighth ward. The city has acquired 80 homes so far, 48 in the fifth ward area, and 32 in the eighth ward area, and will renovate a total of 100 foreclosed properties, according to Jolene Saul, housing development specialist for the city of Evanston. Among the houses the city has already bought, 13 are either rented or sold, and 24 more homes are on the market for sale or rent—including 1733 Leland Ave.

Thus far, neighbors and homebuyers under the program have pronounced it a success. 

“They love it,” Ald. Delores Holmes said of her constituents in the fifth ward, where 1733 Leland is located. “They want people to come in and live here.” 

That’s the story for Christopher Meeks, the first homebuyer under the program, who says that he and his wife wouldn’t have been able to afford a home in Evanston were it not for the program, which offers several incentives to homebuyers.   

“It was a five-bedroom home that would otherwise have been out of our budget,” says Meeks, who moved with his wife and two kids into their new home on Grey Avenue in January. “We thought that it was too good to be true, but it is true and it’s good, and it works.”

Under the program, which is being marketed as “LiveEvanston,” homebuyers who qualify based on income may receive an incentive of $7,000 and up to $50,000 toward the cost of their home, as well as a forgivable second mortgage. Buyers are also required to complete eight hours of free homeownership counseling. 

Developer David Brint of Brinshore Development, who has contracted with the city to manage the renovations, said the effects of one foreclosure can ripple down an entire street. 

Neighbors trying to sell their homes can’t beat the price the bank is willing to negotiate on a foreclosure sale—meaning their homes are assessed at a lower value. Mortgage companies may look askew at struggling owners who want to refinance, and deny their applications. 

“People get underwater, basically for no reason,” Brint says. "It has a really big multiplier effect."

He hopes that the neighborhood stabilization program can reverse that trend—and he's banking future projects on the model's success.

“We’re actually going to try to replicate this model in other parts of the area,” he say. “This model looks like it’s working.” 

Brint won’t reveal where his firm is considering doing other projects like this one. But he will be back in Evanston for the second phase of the neighborhood stabilization program. This summer, construction begins on Emerson Square, a new, 60-unit housing development planned for a former industrial site at Foster and Emerson streets.

Meanwhile, there’s one more exterior modification in the works for 1733 Leland Ave.: a new sign that reads, “Sold.” Four qualified buyers have made an offer, and Brint expects a contract to be signed this summer.

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