Home equity program racked by crisis

Galewood residents demand radical changes for Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

If there is one thing both the commissioners appointed to govern it and the property owners whose taxes fund it agree on, it's that the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program needs to change. 

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program is one of the three programs that were implemented in the late 1980s throughout what were then majority-white Chicago neighborhoods, including Galewood. 

The idea was to stop white flight by addressing one of its root causes — the fear that an increase in the minority population would bring down property values. However, in the three decades since its creation, the program has only been lightly used, leading some elected officials, community organizations and property owners to wonder whether the money that is being collected would be better used some other way.

During a June 16 meeting of the program's governing commission, which was held at its office, 3022 N. Harlem Ave., residents and members of the Northwest Side Housing Center argued just that. 

Although the demands varied, the most consistent themes were that the commission should reduce the program's budget, take the cue from the Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program and use the funds to help home owners cover home repairs and be more transparent with the public. While some details would still need to be worked out, the commissioners were open to the general ideas. 

Like other home equity assurance programs, the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program can add an extra charge to the property tax bills of all property owners within its home equity district, which spans much of Northwest Side and Galewood portion of the bungalow belt. 

Those funds are then used to pay the property owners the difference between how much the property was initially appraised for and how much it was sold for. But the program doesn't apply to every property owner. To qualify, a taxpayer must live on the property in question for at least five years and they must pay a $150 fee to cover the appraisal.

The program is governed by the Northwest Home Equity Commission, which is made up of seven home equity district residents appointed by the mayor. The July 16 meeting marked the first time the board was able to form a quorum since several former long-serving members resigned last year. 

Appointing their replacements took several months, with the final three only appointed on June 27. The new commissioners were appointed with input from most aldermen whose wards fall within the home equity district.

In a statement released at the time, Northwest Side Housing Center, a Belmont-Cragin based non-profit located with the district, celebrated the appointment, saying that the new commission "will provide proper oversight to the program and make better use of the program's funds to meet the needs of the community." 

In the same press release, the organization argued fears that greater minority population would drive down property values hadn't borne out and the funds would be better used to help finance home repairs and help long-time homeowners stay in their homes in the gentrifying portions of the district. As noted during the meeting, Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program is already using the funds to provide loans to assist with home repairs.

Ahead of the meeting, William Smiljanich, of Galewood, went on Facebook to urge fellow Galewood residents to attend the meeting and call upon the commission to address the projected budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, get rid of executive director Bruce Washington due to his alleged involvement in corrupt real estate dealings, hold off on approving two claims that were scheduled to be considered during the meeting, put a moratorium on all claims settlements until a "transparent" rubric is established and put a moratorium on all applications until a home repair program is established. Smiljanich was also handing out fliers with the copies of the demands to everyone who arrived at the meeting.

During the meeting, Diana Mireles, of Montclare, spoke in favor of the home repair assistance, saying that she's been struggling to pay mortgage and keep up with home repairs — an issue that got worse since she became visually disabled and wound up on a fixed income.

"It's kind of ugly from where I sit," she said. "I've paid into something. It's not an entitlement. It's kind of [kept] quiet. I can't help that, what's gone. But I hope that you guys are in position, with the attitude, to correct this."

Michelle Rodriguez-Taylor, of Jefferson Park, was among several residents who urged the commission to cut down on the projected $42,000 budget deficit.  She said that she had experience managing budgets for nonprofits.

"I would be more than happy to volunteer my time to work with anyone to see how we can balance it better," she said. "It's a slippery slope, once you get in a red one year."

But not everyone who spoke was on board with demands. Pat Vader, who lives only a few buildings north of the program's office, said she was "disturbed" by moratoriums.

"One of the complaints that have come up with [commission] meetings is that we're useless, we don't make any claims," she said. "What this organization is supposed to do is pay claims. And now, we're saying [the commission] is not going to pay. That upsets me."

Vader also argued getting rid of Washington didn't make sense if there was no other candidate to replace him.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) used to live in Galewood until the 2012 remap shifted his home from the 36th Ward to the 29th Ward, prompted him to move into the newly remapped 38th Ward, where much of the former 36th Ward was moved. He said that he was involved with the program "from day one" and, while the program had issues over the years, he was optimistic about the new commissioners.

"Be patient with those people," he said. "I know they got good intentions."

Ald. John Arena (45th) said that, while he believed that the public should hold the commission accountable and he agreed with many of the residents' demands, he was willing to give the newly elected commissioners a chance.

"I think we need to allow the board to do its work and the challenge for the board is to do something," he said. "I'm optimistic about what this board is doing, because we've already been inquiring."

While the commission didn't approve any moratoriums, it decided to postpone the decision on claims until the next meeting to give Washington time to outline the methodology behind the numbers in the claims. Read full story online.

 

And after spending an hour trying to figure out ways to reduce the deficit, the commissioners decided not to vote on the budget until the next meeting, which will take place in Aug 30 at 6:30 p.m.

In response to concerns about transparency, the commission agreed to make the copies of the revised budget publicly available. 

In the interest of improving transparency, the commission agreed to set up a website. Their first priority is to set up a basic website to share information. In the long run, they plan to create a more substantial resource that would make agendas, minutes and other public documents readily available and that will allow property owners involved in the program to make payments and apply for home repair loans online. 

As for Washington becoming a permanent executive director, the commission agreed to open the process to other candidates. This prompted the acting director to wonder whether this was the commission's roundabout way of trying to force him out.

"If I'm not wanted, I wish you would just say it, so I wouldn't waste my time," he said.

He also accused Commissioner Diane Reyes of having a conflict of interest by submitting three resumes of residents who were outspoken about wanting to change the program.

Reyes responded that she simply passed on whatever resumes were sent to her and she insisted that she had no issue with Washington.

"Honestly, Mr. Washington, I think you have done a good job," she said. ' I just want to have open [process], where other people can send resumes and we discuss what we're really looking for and take a vote on that."

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com    

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