Unlike most Chicagoans Ethel Mason is looking forward to next winter.

The long time Austin resident lives in a massive stucco house with drafty single pane windows that did little to keep old man winter out and the often high heating bill that came with him.

To deal with the chill that permeated her home in the 5300 block of west Ohio Street, Mason often layered in warm clothing and cranked up her thermostat. She hopes that’s not the case next winter. Mason was one of the few lucky ones to qualify for a forgivable loan under the city’s Micro Market Recovery Program which allowed her to replace her old windows.

The MMR program aims to stabilize neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosure. The program partners with community groups to rehab and reoccupy vacant homes, offer foreclosure prevention assistance and help existing residents repair their homes.

Through the program, Mason got 24 windows replaced with more energy efficient ones and a new furnace. A new roof is in the works. The cost for the windows and furnace came to $12,100, something Mason said she couldn’t afford without the assistance of the program.

“I really am looking to see just how much I save on my gas bill,” said Mason who lives on a fixed income and struggles paying her gas bill that topped $500 per month this past winter. The 86-year-old moved into her Austin home 41 years ago.

“Every month they’ll send shut off notices. I send them what I can send them. I am hoping and praying that it will go down. I’m hoping next winter it will be better with the windows,” she said.

Austin is one of 12 communities involved in the MMR program. The program targets certain neighborhood blocks for redevelopment. The Austin target area is between Laramie, Central, Chicago Avenue and Lake Street. Austin Coming Together is the lead agency for the city program.

The forgivable loan program does two things says ACT’s Andrew Born. The program provides access to financing to homeowners who ordinarily wouldn’t qualify for traditional loans to make home repairs. And it helps stabilize Austin’s already great housing stock by allowing homeowner’s to reinvest in their properties.

The forgivable loan essentially becomes a grant, Born said. Homeowners are given the money to do the repairs, but as long as they stay in their homes for a certain period of time a portion of the loan is deducted, he said.

The program is to encourage homeowners to make investments in their homes, Born said. He hopes other families are inspired by the makeovers and will do the same. The tradeoff, he said, is the value of their homes and the neighborhood would increase, turning blighted areas into a more livable space.

“Hopefully it will inspire people to take more pride in their property and their neighborhood … or get more involved in their block clubs …,” he said.

Born noted that Austin has many stately homes, some of which have fallen into disrepair. Access to credit is one reason homeowners cannot reinvest back into their homes. This program takes the burden off some families, but it also limited by how many Austinites qualified for the program, he said.

Out of the 100 applications distributed, only five households qualified for the program with another 10 applications being considered. Residents had to make less than 80 percent of the area median income, and have no unpaid water bills or parking tickets. Unfortunately, Born said, that kept the numbers small as to who qualified for the program.

“That has kind of been an ongoing challenge,” Born said. “We’re hoping that if we got the word out that people have gotten the loans and have made some good repairs, people will overcome their reluctance to apply next year for the next round of funds.”

Austin resident Mrs. Price, who did not want her first name used for article, said the program works. She too is looking forward to winter. Her home in the 600 block of North Lorel was also in dire need of new windows.

“They were old and just deteriorating and my house was so cold,” Mrs. Price said, noting that her windows were so drafty that the curtains would blow from the wind. “It was just ridiculous. I got duct tape and everything but they still will be standing out just like a parachute.”

Thanks to the program, Mrs. Price had 37 new windows installed and a new outlook on winter also. This winter, she hopes her gas bill will be cut in half from the $3,000 she paid when the polar vortex engulfed Chicago.

Mrs. Price called the program a godsend since she wouldn’t have been able to afford the $12,500 price tag to install the windows. She admits she had some skepticism that it was a scam when first told of program. Now she encourages other homeowners to give it a try.

“These programs weren’t working for the Austin area. So everybody was afraid [but] I would tell them it really works. And if I say it works, it works,” Mrs. Price said.

Read more ‘Join Us in Austin’ articles.

Want to find out more?

You can find out more about the Micro Market Recovery Program by calling Andrew Born at Austin Coming Together. Born is ACT's community planning director. His number is 773-417-8612.

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