A West Side alderman recently requested that Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson look into whether or not a local nonprofit has been trying to influence a program created in the 1980s to compensate homeowners who experienced decreased property values due to the neighborhood’s transition from predominantly white to predominantly African American residents.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said that he is concerned that the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), a Belmont-Cragin based non-profit, may be trying to influence the Northwest Side Home Equity Assurance Program.
Some of the housing center commissioners were recently appointed to the nonprofit’s governing board and the center has made no secret that it has an active interest in the equity assurance program commission’s composition, the program’s policies and many of the program’s decisions. At one point, the nonprofit even submitted a slate of candidates it wanted to be on the program commission.
The nonprofit’s executive director, James Rudyk, has denied the alderman’s allegations, noting that the candidates that the nonprofit slated were not chosen and that there is only one commissioner on the program’s board who has any ties to the nonprofit.
The equity assurance program is one of three programs that were established throughout Chicago in the 1980s in what were then majority-white neighborhoods to address concerns that demographic changes would cause decline in property values.
All homes within each program’s area paid a special charge on top of their property taxes, creating a pool of money that could be used to compensate property owners for whatever losses they may have incurred when selling their properties.
The equity assurance program’s district includes Galewood and most of the neighborhoods further north, between Milwaukee District West Line, Milwaukee District North Line and Union Pacific Northwest Line railroad tracks.
The housing center nonprofit serves much of the same area, working to help home owners avoid foreclosure and helping new homeowners buy homes and encourage homeownership. Over the last few years, the nonprofit has been upfront about the fact that it was unhappy with the way the program was run and wanted to make changes.
In response to an inquiry by Austin Weekly News, Rudyk forwarded a copy of a letter he sent to Ferguson on July 13. In the letter, Rudyk wrote that since 2008, his organization has been trying to get equity assurance program to start issuing low-interest loans for home repair, something that another program, the Southwest Home Equity Assurance Program, had already started doing.
“During that time, we tried to meet with the NWHEAP Director Robin Larson, but found that on more than five occasions, she was not in the office,’ Rudyk wrote. “This raised red flags for us and the community. We wanted to know how the program was operating and using resident tax dollars.”
After consulting with the city government, the nonprofit went so far as proposing its own slate of candidates for the commission. The original list didn’t get anywhere, and when it submitted a revise list, the city asked them to run it by aldermen who represent the district.
During the first half of this year, several commissioners have left the board, and appointing their replacements has taken several months. Each alderman within the district, including Taliaferro, gets a chance to nominate one commissioner.
Rudyk wrote that his organization didn’t have any relationship with any of the new appointees save for Commissioner Diane Reyes.
“Ms. Reyes was both a client and former part-time [sic] contractor employee of NWSHC,” he wrote. “She benefited from our Foreclosure Prevention services and we strongly believe this experience makes her an ideal candidate to administer a community loan program to her fellow residents.”
Austin Weekly News first became aware of Taliaferro’s complaint during the commission’s July 16 meeting — the first meeting of the newly appointed commission. At the time, the commissioners and equity assurance program director declined to share the copy of the complaint with this newspaper.
“I [sent a letter] to the Inspector General to see if it was his responsibility to look into my concerns as to whether or not the operations of the committee, as well as the operations of that program, were being done with complete transparency,” Taliaferro said in a recent interview.
“I was very concerned, based on the actions of some of the new appointees, that there was an effort to have that program’s purpose change, with that program to be overseen by the Northwest Housing Council,” he said.
Taliaferro did not elaborate on what those actions were, saying only that he was concerned about NWSHC, a private entity, having control over a taxing body, especially given the millions of dollars the program collected.
But during the July 16 meeting, one of the issues that came up during the discussion of the search for the program’s permanent executive director was Reyes submitting resumes of candidates the nonprofit supported.
She insisted that she was simply passing along whatever resumes got sent to her. When Commissioner Thomas Simmons, who was nominated by Taliaferro, brought up the possibility that the nonprofit was interested in taking over the program, Reyes denied it.
“No, they don’t want to run the program,” she said. “They want to educate people about this program.”
Commissioners Andrea Mitchell and Kerry Murphy — who were nominated by Ald. John Arena (45th) and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), respectively — both denied that the nonprofit had any influence over the program.
“I did talk to James [Rudyk] and [Director of Community Development] Julio [Rodriguez] from the Northwest Side Housing Center, and I never got the impression that they wanted to run this,” Murphy said. “Not once did anyone say, ‘You get on there, you give me a job.'”
Mitchell said that she was “shocked” by the letter.
Ultimately, the commissioners decided not to respond to the letter, with Commissioner Michael Saladino describing it as “nonsense.”
“Just leave it,” he said. “There’s nothing to defend, it’s nothing.”
In his letter to Ferguson, Rudyk denied Taliaferro’s allegations as well.
“We find the alderman’s baseless and non-factual claims to be very concerning,” he wrote. “This sets a very dangerous precedent that a government official can accuse a local nonprofit of a conflict of interest whenever they do not like the work that the non-profit is doing.”