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A modest proposal


The "interim" has arrived. For Chicagoans that is the period (often brief) between its mayoral election campaigns.

As everyone on the planet Earth and beyond knows, on April 7 Harold Washington was easily reelected Chicago's mayor. What is known by only a few is that on the same election day voters in 11 southwest and northwest city wards overwhemingly approved advisory referenda advocating a guaranteed home equity program. Obviously the causes and meaning of the mayor's triumph have dominated the post-election commentary, but the potential impact of these advisory referenda also has major implications for the city's future.

What is a Guaranteed Home Equity Program (GHEP)? Who is providing the organizational framework to push the idea? Why has it become a major issue in certain parts of Chicago?

GHEP would create a fund to guarantee home values in city neighborhoods facing the strong possibility of racial change. In the past, such communities have been vulnerable to slipshod real estate firms that made quick profits by blockbusting and panic peddling (frightening white homeowners to sell their homes at below the fair market price and then reselling the property at above that same market price to black buyers). Under GHEP, homeowners in the targeted areas would pay an annual fee (ranging from $5 to $20) to fund an equity insurance pool. Once the program is implemented (it would take enabling legislation passed by the city council), the fund dollars would be used to guarantee home values — thereby eliminating or at least limiting the potential for unscrupulous panic peddlers to run in and turn a neighborhood.

The main proponents of GHEP have been a coalition of two ethnic-based community groups: (1) the Northwest Neighborhood Federation and (2) The Southwest Neighborhood and Parish Federation. Together they have formed an alliance called the Save Our Neighborhood, Save Our City Coalition, more commonly called SON/SOC. It was SON/SOC that gathered over 18,000 signatures to place the referenda on the April 7 ballot and then later led the successful campaign to secure overwhelming approval for the GHEP referenda.

The movement in support of GHEP is a partial response to growing neighborhood concerns among northwest and southwest side Chicago residents living near or on "the frontier of racial change in the city." Many of these ethnic communities, often called derisively the "bungalow belt" by some Chicagoans, have received much unfavorable criticism in recent years. Pejorative stories regarding their so-called blue-collar lifestyles and conservative social and political views have created a new journalistic art form known as "ethnic bashing" in some of the major, as well as the trendy, city press.'

Given the highly charged racial climate of recent Chicago politics, it has been an easy transition for some pundits and reporters to cast these ethnic communities at the evil, anti-black, bad guys. Incredibly most writers and believers of this line of thinking often live in communities far more economically and socially segregated than the people they are condemning. On Chicago's south side, the so-called racial dividing line is Western Avenue (whites to the west; blacks to the east. What GHEP hopes to avoid is having storefront real estate firms set up shop on Western Avenue and play havoc with the fears and concerns of those white ethnics living west of the line. Following the traditional pattern of moving to better housing (admittedly not without some pain of both sides of the street) finds some minorities buying homes west of Western. Property in these neighborhoods is affordable to many blacks and Hispanics seeking the upward mobility goals of a better home and neighborhood to raise their children. Conservative white southwest-siders unlike their "alleged" liberal white near-north side brethren have not yet found the secret of jacking up the prices of their property, thereby driving out and keeping out low- and lower middle-income residents of any color.

34/June 1987/Illinois Issues

What's at stake? Since 1960 Chicago has lost well over 200,000 middle-class families to the suburbs in Cook and the collar counties. Bluntly stated, the vast majority of these departing people have been white homeowners, many of whom had lived in neighborhoods that underwent sudden radical change and eventual decline in property values.

As a result of this process Chicago has lost a large chunk of its middle-class tax-paying population; formerly well-kept neighborhoods have deteriorated, while costs to the city of servicing these communities have increased dramatically in terms of social and police services.

To Mayor Washington's credit, he has generally supported SON/SOC's efforts to fight those forces seeking to disrupt these communities. Historically Chicago has been a city whose neighborhoods have reflected its ethnic diversity. What is now needed is to move Chicago from its old multi-ethnic roots to a new multi-racial garden. A large step in that direction would be to understand and respect the desires of many long-time Chicago residents to preserve their neighborhood's rich cultural traditions. GHEP seems like a logical and potentially successful, short-term step to give Chicagoans the time to work out some longstanding and difficult social problems. As is probably quite evident from my column I have a personal interest in GHEP and SON/SOC. My wife comes from the heavily Lithuanian Marquette Park area on the city's southwest side, and I have spent much time in these GHEP targeted neighborhoods. On February 8 I attended a SON/SOC mayoral forum at Maria High School, my wife's alma mater. I heard Mayor Washington, former Mayor Jane Byrne and Republican mayoral candidate Don Haider praise the efforts of the audience for fighting to maintain their community. What was most moving, however, were the words of an elderly Lithuanian lady (many of these SON/SOC homeowners are senior citizens) who saw me furiously taking notes. She said the following to me (almost verbatim): "Mister —will you write something good about us? ... I have lived here 46 years, and I don't want the neighorbood to go down the drain."

Pretty powerful stuff from a woman who lives in a community that makes the best bread, sausage and barley soup in the world. I hope they can hold on.

June 1987/Illinois Issues/35

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