Nonprofit spurs development in poor neighborhoods

When Anthony Oliver first walked into the building he planned to rehab at 1256 S. Independence in Lawndale, he admits he was nervous.

"One side of the building had to be lifted up 13 inches," says Oliver. "In some places we had to take the walls out, which meant doing new electrical, new plumbing."

It's the biggest job Oliver's done so far, and it was a big risk, one he says he might not have taken except for the help of Community Investment Corp., a nonprofit Chicago multi-family rehab lender.

Oliver's loan officer at CIC, James Lackland, walked him through the process, showing him how it could be done.

"He held my hand through the financial pieces," says Oliver. "That sort of put me at ease."

Formed in 1974, CIC lends money to small developers throughout metropolitan Chicago, helping them get the financing they need to rehab apartment buildings in underserved communities.

With the current housing market and the credit crunch, it's hard for landlords and property owners to get loans, says Jack Markowski, president of CIC, especially in lower-income neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.

"It's such a chaotic environment," says Markowski. "We're not shirking from duty. We're lending responsibly and aggressively in these communities."

The reason CIC can continue lending at such a volatile time in the market, Markowski says, is because they work so closely with developers, getting to know them and teaching them good property management skills.

"If you have good management, everything else follows," says Jack Bernhard, vice president of community development at JPMorgan Chase in Chicago. "Good tenants, paying their rents. It's good for the tenants, good for the landlord and good for the neighborhood.

Chase is one of CIC's largest sources of funds, but the nonprofit gets money from over 46 different banks around Chicago. Those banks pool their money into CIC, which then in turn diffuses their risk, knowing that the organization will find smart ways to loan in communities that need decent housing.

Smart management and pooled risk means banks give to CIC when they're unwilling to take a chance elsewhere, says Markowski.

"We're very unusual in having money available to lend," he says. "We do have a lot of money to lend."

Some of that money has recently started going into energy efficiency. CIC offers loans through the Energy Savers program, part of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which gives free energy audits to landlords and helps them figure out how energy efficient upgrades for their buildings can save them money.

Rising energy costs and stagnant rent prices are making it harder for landlords to keep up with their mortgages, says Anne Evens, director of energy at CNT.

"It's getting harder and harder to operate a multi-family rental building," says Evens. "Energy efficiency is always a smart investment."

In the first year of the program, 150 buildings have been audited, with 560 units complete with energy efficient systems and another 750 under construction. 

Overall, CIC has been rehabbing Chicago's poorest neighborhoods on a block by block basis over the years. The organization has given out $820 million over 1,405 loans, rehabbing 39,000 units across the city.

As for Anthony Oliver, his building will be finished in just a few weeks, and Oliver says he's incredibly proud of how it's turned out and excited for the families that will be moving in.

"It's making sure the family has a good, solid base for growth," says Oliver. "I'm on cloud nine."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.