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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Lawndale Wins Lion’s Share Of Home Improvement Grants, But Funding Runs Out Quicker Than Anticipated

Some North Lawndale residents say the cumbersome application made the program inaccessible to those it aimed to help.

Greystones line a Lawndale street.
John Morris/Chicago Patterns
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Thanks to a housing nonprofit, 40 homeowners on the city’s South and West sides have won grants to help them fix up porches, repair roofs and mend the masonry on their houses.

Each Targeted Home Improvement Grant, provided by the urban revitalization nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services, offers up to $25,000 for exterior home improvements. The grants aim to help owners of up to a four-unit home keep their property in a good state of repair in struggling housing markets.

The program specifically targets low and moderate-income households in North Lawndale, Woodlawn and the 10 city-defined “Micro-Market Recovery Program Areas” that suffer from high rates of foreclosure: Auburn Gresham, Austin, Chatham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Hermosa, New City, West Garfield Park, West Humboldt Park, and West Pullman.

Lawndale residents received 10 of the 40 grants, far more than any other community area. But residents and members of the North Lawndale Homeowners Association are concerned that the cumbersome application process made the program inaccessible to the Chicagoans it aimed to help.

Val Cavin is a Lawndale homeowner who applied for the program with the assistance of Neighborhood Housing Services staff. The process requires two years of the owner’s tax returns plus three of the most current pay stubs for each tenant in the building, which she said was a tall order for her and others in need of the grants.

“I don’t see why this is even relevant, because tenants move on. I mean, they’re not here throughout the life of a building, and I have no understanding of why this is even required,” Cavin said.

When Cavin heard of the grant, she wanted to put her application in as soon as possible so she could repair her front and back porch, inspect her aging roof and tuckpoint the mortar on her greystone home. Neighborhood Housing Services staff assured her she was qualified since she fell under the income threshold, but since the program allocates the $1 million in funding on a first-come, first-served basis, she wanted to act as quickly.

But one tenant in Cavin’s building wasn’t keen on releasing potentially sensitive financial information to Cavin and Neighborhood Housing Services. When the tenant declined to provide proof of her income, she reached out to Neighborhood Housing Services for a solution.

Matt Cole, Neighborhood Housing Services grants and programs manager, said his organization and the city are also concerned about the burden the tenant paystub requirement might be for homeowners.

“We would love to have the program app be less onerous. … It’s actually really hard to give money away because of all the program requirements,” Cole said.

The grants are financed by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants, which are given to the city and then administered through the nonprofit. HUD introduced new rules for those funds in 2019, requiring Neighborhood Housing Services to verify the income of tenants with paystubs.

But Neighborhood Housing Services and the city appealed for a more accessible way to comply with the new rule. About a month after the application period opened, the nonprofit received approval from HUD to use a simplified self-verification form for determining tenant income instead of paystubs.

Eventually, they were able to provide Cavin with the form that her tenant could fill out instead of providing paystubs. But her tenant still did not want to give away her personal information.

“She said she still wouldn’t do it,” Cavin said. “So I was stuck.”

Incidentally, her tenant was in the process of becoming a homeowner herself. So Cavin decided to wait it out until the unit was vacant to bypass the paystub requirement. But by the time her tenant was gone and she could submit her application on April 25, it was too late. Weeks later, she received a letter explaining he funding for the program had already been exhausted by the time she applied.

In fact, the money ran out so quickly that some homeowners who applied as early as March 19 eventually received notice that the funds were exhausted, only a couple weeks after the rolling application period opened on Feb. 27.

The first-come, first-served policy is important to the program because the construction projects must be completed within the year the grants are offered, Cole said. Since exterior home repairs can only be done in warmer seasons, applications need to be reviewed as soon as they are submitted so eligible projects can be started immediately.

“We have to kind of do it on this basis where we need people to get their applications in as soon as possible,” Cole said.

To that end, Neighborhood Housing Services engaged community partners, aldermen, and in Lawndale, assigned a staff member to attend community meetings and notify homeowners association members like Cavin about the opportunity. But despite the outreach and support they offer to targeted neighborhoods, the nonprofit ultimately doesn’t have a say in determining which materials are needed to apply.

Cavin is now on the waitlist in case any funding becomes available, but still worries that those requirements end up affecting who is ultimately able to access the grants. It was hard enough for her to try to get pay stubs from her single tenant. But applicants in owner-occupied four-flats would have to solicit three tenants for their personal information to apply.

“I had a good relationship with my tenant. And I would’ve thought that maybe I could’ve gotten it from her, but I didn’t,” Cavin said. “And I imagine that there are a lot of people that do not have good relations with their tenants, and they wouldn’t know where to start approaching them.”

In addition to the hassle of getting tenants to prove their income, the new rules also mean that tenant income is a consideration for determining grant winners. The new guidelines can make it harder for owners of a multi-family home to qualify for the funds.

For three -and four-unit homes to be eligible to the grants, the incomes of both the homeowner and either one or two tenants (depending on the number of units in the property) must each fall beneath a certain threshold. Incomes must be below 80 percent of the Area Median Income, as determined by HUD, to qualify. That means the cap for a tenant’s income could be as low as $47,400 per year.

By the types of homes that won the grants, Cavin’s concerns may be warranted. Out of the 40 grants, 29 went towards single-family homes. 10 grants went towards two-flats, and only one three-flat received money from the program.

When asked why multi-unit tenant income is a factor for determining eligibility for the grants, HUD’s press team issued the following statement via email:

“HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program’s primary objective is to benefit low- and moderate-income residents. The only way to certify that beneficiaries are lower income is to determine their income.” 

But to be clear, tenants are not the beneficiaries of the program, the homeowners are. And homeowners contest that the salary of the people living on their property has nothing to do with their own income, especially for retirees like Cavin.

Looking forward to next year, Cavin says that she plans to apply as early as possible to improve her chances. And for the sake of other homeowners across the city, she hopes that HUD drops the tenant income requirement or at least allow for self-verification instead of pay stubs from the get-go.

“If they’re going to require tenant information, that’s probably the best they can do,” Cavin said. “But I don’t think they should require tenant information at all.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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