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The ‘Power of Neighborhoods’ at 20th CNDAs

Wed, Mar 12, 2014

The Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDAs) are the only juried awards in the U.S. for community-based architecture, development and organizing, which has led many advocates to call them the local “Oscars.”

Even though business suits – not black tie – were the dress code, Oscar excitement was particularly strong at this year’s 20th annual CNDAs under the theme, “The Power of Neighborhoods.” The February 20 event at the Hilton Chicago attracted a record 1,600 civic, community, government and philanthropic leaders. An opening video provided commentary from former Mayor Richard M. Daley; from Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama; and from Julia Stasch, a philanthropic leader and former board member of LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) Chicago, which started the CNDAs in 1995. At the time, according to prepared material, social commentators were predicting “the end of the city” and neighborhoods lacked power. LISC determined to change that.

“What particularly happens in neighborhoods across the city of Chicago is that ethnicities all come together to bring a neighborhood’s old building back to life and make it the center of the community, we want to thank everyone who has made that happen over the years,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in his keynote. Private and public sectors are working together now on reforms, “whether in the school, housing, community gardens, transportation, technology itself so the awards are a small recognition of the essential role we play in revitalizing the city of Chicago, neighborhood by neighborhood, building by building.”

Among the 10 award recipients at this year’s 20th annual CNDAs were programs to combat wage theft, to preserve affordable rental housing in Uptown and to restore foreclosures in Pilsen into rental and for-sale housing.

Ten juried awards in all were given, many with cash prizes (See story Page 10). They encompassed outstanding community strategy; outstanding nonprofit and for-profit real estate projects; affordable rental housing preservation; organizing; three architectural excellence in community design projects honored by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; and recognition of both an emerging leader and a lifetime achiever.

The Woods Fund Chicago Power of Community Award was new this year. It recognizes an organizing campaign that has achieved a victory that has improved the quality of life for a group of people, and thus transformed a neighborhood that has faced inequities.

The $15,000 award went to the four-year-old Just Pay for All Coalition, which has won legislative victories against wage theft and even helped workers regain $6.2 million in pay that was stolen from them.

“Immigrants often do the hardest jobs in our city and to make matters worse, their wages are sometimes stolen from them through a system of ruthless criminal exploitation,” said Grace Hou and Patrick Sheahan of the Woods Fund Chicago in presenting the award for “a successful effort to produce regulations that protect working people.”

The Power of NeighborhoodsAccording to the University of Illinois at Chicago in an accompanying video, $7.3 million is stolen from Cook County workers each week. However, “in just one year of street level organizing, the coalition achieved one of the most sweeping labor laws in 35 years.”

Thanks to the Just Pay Coalition’s organizing efforts, the Illinois General Assembly passed five amendments to the Illinois Wage Payments and Collections Act (IWPCA) in 2010 that increased penalties to deter wage theft and created an administrative small claims process to allow victims to process their own claims efficiently. The Just Pay coalition also helped to pass a wage theft ordinance in Chicago, one of the first municipal ordinances of its kind in the U.S.

Formed in 2009, the Just Pay Coalition includes the Latino Union, the Chicago Workers Collaborative, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos: Immigrant Workers Project and Working Hands Legal Clinic.

Ana Guajardo, executive director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, said in a telephone interview that wage theft has been occurring for at least 20 years, in all kinds of industries: construction, retail, grocery stores, house workers, day laborers. An employer will deduct wages from a paystub. Or if the worker is paid in cash, the employer might say, “I will pay you some now and the rest later.”

Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, a member of the Just Pay Coalition, represented two different workers who had done construction work for two subcontractors and who ended up losing their homes because they were unable to meet payments with their shorted wages. Centro de Trabajadores Unidos took their cases to the Illinois Department of Labor but they were still pending when the employer disappeared; the law placed the burden of finding them on the workers, who lacked the resources to do so.

Just Pay Coalition. Photo: Just Pay Coalition website

Just Pay Coalition. Photo: Just Pay Coalition website

Guajardo said wage theft occurs across all races – white, black, Latino. She described it in 17-year-olds who accept less than minimum wage, in African-Americans on the North Side who also go unpaid, in companies that go bankrupt and courts that give payment preference to all but the workers.

Employers have been able to get away with wage theft because workers have lived in fear of retaliation or being fired, Guajardo said.
“It takes people awhile to actually process it and do something about it,” she said. “The beauty is what we’ve seen over the years once people are ready to speak up. It changes you. We’ve seen people who’ve always been afraid, who never want to challenge the system. When they do break out of that fear, they realize they can do more in life. They’ve stepped up and become leaders.”

The state law passed in 2010 says that two judgements in a period of two years can lead to jail time, Guajardo said. There are no such offenders – yet – but Guajardo says she knows the coalition’s work will never end. There will always be more uninformed workers.

Yet thanks to the Just Pay for All Coalition, there will also be people who can stand up and reach out to them about their past unjust experiences, she said. “It’s like a little dot and it begins to spread.”

Foreclosures can also spread despair through a neighborhood, “making the block around our school look bleak,” and leading kids to worry about their safety while walking home, said Rhonda Hoskins, principal of Daley Academy in Back of the Yards. That’s why Hoskins said she was so happy to be among those accepting the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Outstanding Non-Profit Neighborhood Real Estate Project to The Resurrection Project (TRP), which used $13.8 million in federal funds to acquire and redevelop 40 foreclosed and vacant properties throughout the neighborhood. The award includes a $15,000 prize.

One of Hoskins’s former students, Jesse Iniquez, bought one of these homes with his wife, Claudia Guzman. TRP’s program provided them financial counseling so they could reduce their debt and qualify for a fixed-rate mortgage. They were able to purchase a completely rehabbed home with updated layout and new hardwood floors for $135,000; their monthly mortgage is $1,000 and they have the added income of a downstairs rental unit, according to a story on the TRP website.

“The nice thing about the program,” Iniquez said, “is that it doesn’t set you up for failure. It ensures that you will not be placed in a position where you are susceptible to losing your home. Now we can even save. We are not working only to pay the mortgage.”

Iniquez received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Latino Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Guzman a master’s degree from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Along with their 5-year-old daughter and their dog, they have settled into the community. “Before living here, I never lived in a place where there was a sense of community,” Guzman said. “There are roots here. I want to set an example. Being successful doesn’t mean making money and then leaving. Some of us need to stay behind to change the neighborhood.”

Gentrification rather than disinvestment was the situation facing Voice of the People (VOP) of Uptown when it needed to rehab 30 units of housing known as the Hazel Winthrop Apartments. VOP wound up partnering with the Chicago Community Development Corporation and won the Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award – and a $15,000 prize – given to a real estate project that serves as a model for preserving affordable rental housing at risk because of expiring subsidies or physical deterioration.

One building that is part of Voice of the Peope of Uptown's Hazel Winthrop Apartments.

One building that is part of Voice of the Peope of Uptown’s Hazel Winthrop Apartments.

VOP has a portfolio of 15 vintage buildings, said Executive Director Debra Claybron in a telephone interview. The Hazel Winthrop Apartments had been rehabbed in the 1980s using HUD mod rehab financing and tax credits that had expired; former partners in the rehab were eyeing them as condo conversions because they are extra spacious, with sun porches and dining rooms. In addition, Uptown is the last affordable North Side lakefront neighborhood.

Simultaneously, Claybron said she remains conscious that Uptown is also a port of entry for immigrants. One Vietnamese family living in the Hazel Winthrop included a father who had been injured in the war and who had not worked since coming here, a mother who had worked in rice paddies, and their six daughters. The family first lived in a church facility and worked their way up a waiting list to a four-bedroom apartment. Having lived in low-income housing, the daughters were able to get special grants to attend college. They majored in retail, in business and in medicine.

Claybron, who was in the first class with the LISC development institute nearly 20 years ago, said she never allowed VOP housing to look low-income, especially given the gentrification that has come to Uptown. She credits former 46th ward Ald. Helen Shiller for sharing this vision, and for providing money from the Wilson Yard TIF among the layers of financing needed to complete the renovations and retain the properties as affordable rentals.

“At the time you could get top dollar but she said ‘no, they will stay low-income’ and they were earmarked to be sure. She had the vision, she knew if we had the right people involved this would be very good for the low-income families who needed it most. The Wilson Yards was one of the best TIFs ever done; it was effective on so many levels. It hit the commercial [a Target store], it hit education [the Truman College annex] it hit long-term housing.”

As with The Resurrection Project, VOP was able to use the renovation projects to create jobs. A “relocation team” liasoned between contractors and the tenants. The team came to work at the same time as the contractors and moved furniture and other belongings so that tenants could remain comfortable in their apartments while kitchen and bathroom rehab continued around them.

Many of these team members were ex-offenders, but Claybron said she never had a complaint about anything being stolen.

“[The workers] would say, ‘I have done my time. I just need an opportunity. I will show what I can do. Just give me a chance.’ ”

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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