Family incomes are on the rise in Austin, according to a study about to be released by Bethel New Life. And while that can be seen as a positive change it is also a cause for concern to Bethel officials who worry about possible displacement of current West Side residents.
The study came out of Bethel’s decision 18 months ago to assess social and economic needs across the West Side so the agency could best focus its efforts. Staff members of non-profit community outreach organization, 4952 W. Thomas, convened to study the changing realities of the communities.
They compiled statistics relating to Austin, North Lawndale and West Garfield Parkin relation to the Chicago area as a whole. The results of the report, titled the Key Indicators Report, prompted Bethel to begin the Community of Choice initiative, which looks at ways of improving the West Side communities by focusing on three primary areas: Affordable Housing, Building Wealth and Improving the Quality of Life for residents.
“Some of the results of the report were quite surprising and it suddenly struck us how much work needs to be done,” said Steven McCullough, CEO of Bethel New Life. “But it allowed us to zero in on the areas that we wanted to work on.”
The initiatives birthed from the report under the Affordable Housing umbrella include finding better affordable housing options not only for lower income families, but also ex-offenders and juvenile delinquents, each of whom still face a difficult task finding shelter after incarceration.
“What we have found is that the demographic, particularly in Austin and West Garfield Park, is changing,” said McCullough. “The number of families with an annual income of $50,000 is rising while the number of families with an income under $50,000 has steadily begun to decrease.”
“While this may sound like a positive, we are concerned about the displacement of people and whether the cost of living is forcing too many people to vacate the community,” said McCullough.
In terms of wealth building, Mildred Wiley, senior director of community government affairs, argues that “there is an abundance of wealth in Austin” however, she quickly adds that what is lacking is wealth building infrastructure.
“The wealth that exists in the community is omnipresent though it is only disposable,” said Wiley who assisted in the compiling of the report. “Proof of this is the fact that there have been three banks opened in the community in the past few years. You don’t see that in an area where no money exists, but we need to work to prevent wealth from leaving our community.”
“To accomplish this, we must start by handling the influx of home foreclosures. We want to encourage banks to hold seminars about predatory lending and workshops that address the proper channels to obtain a home and options if property taxes become too much of a burden.”
The initiative would also seek to work with banks, including Park National and Thrivent Financial, two of Bethel’s primary sponsors, to create more programs like the Match Saving Program offered by the Community Saving Center located at Pulaski and Lake.
The program allows lower and fixed income community residents to set aside funds to purchase a house, pay for college or invest in a business venture and have their funds matched two-to-one. This means that if they save $500 the bank will convert the investment to $1,500.
“Programs such as this will help create businesses and property ownership in the community, especially down Madison Street which is on the rise but remains a criminally underserved locale for new small and large businesses,” said Wiley.
However, the quality of life leg of the initiative appears to be the most challenging.It deals with creating new schools in the community, in particular elementary schools,along with improving the ones that exist presently.
This can be done by creating more after schoolprograms and sponsoring parental resource services at schools on the West Side. This is likened to the partnership Bethel has created with Al Raby High School and George W. Tilton Public School, each of which have after school programs to aid their students’ academic advancement.
According to the Key Indicators Report, which was based on six months of research by a group of staff members from Bethel, only 72.7 percent of 25-year-olds on the West Side are high school graduates, as opposed to 80.6 percent in Chicago as a whole. The report also found that only 41.5 percent of
West Side residents at the collegiate age are in college rather than the 47.9 percent average in the city.
The Key Indicators Report will be available to the public on Monday, Sept. 17 through Bethel New Life at 773/473-7870 or online at www.bethelnewlife.org.