AUSTIN — Neighborhood groups want to transform vacant lots on the West Side into community facilities that will provide housing, health and career services for children and families.
The project is part of the ASPIRE Initiative, an effort to invest in local assets so Austin residents of all ages will have access to education and economic opportunities. The initiative, which aims to create a cradle-to-career pipeline in the area, implements several of the strategies outlined in the Austin Quality-of-Life Plan for achieving resident-driven improvements to the neighborhood.
The planned transformation of the vacant lots is a collaboration among By the Hand, the Cook County Land Bank and neighborhood groups Austin Coming Together and Westside Health Authority. Organizers want to build affordable housing, a community health center, and an early childhood development campus over the next two to three years.
Most of the lots have already been acquired for the project with support from the Cook County Land Bank.
The project will address “the housing needs, the employment needs and the health needs” that many working class people are currently struggling with Austin, said Morris Reed, Westside Health Authority executive director.
Many residents have left the West Side in recent years to find better opportunities, Reed said.
“Our goal is to not only retain them, but also attract more professional and working-class African American families to build their wealth and see opportunities for economic growth here on the West Side,” Reed said. “We don’t want to see the neighborhood gentrify. We want to see the neighborhood grow with the residents we have.”
Westside Health Authority’s 100 Men 100 Homes program, which employs young men and trains them with the skills to restore their own community, will help build 30 affordable homes.
Construction will “involve local contractors and young men [who will be] mentored while they work on construction sites,” Reed said.
The housing component will promote homeownership among legacy Austin residents so they will have more pathways toward generational wealth.
“What we’re excited about with the housing is putting quality housing stock into hands prepared for homeownership. Not renting, homeownership. Wealth creation,” said Donnita Travis, founder of By the Hand Club for Kids.
The early childhood center will have programs for children up to age 4 so neighborhood kids will be able to hit the ground running when they get to kindergarten, Travis said. It will also have facilities designated for after-school programs and for social-emotional learning, Travis said.
The ASPIRE Initiative also involves redeveloping Emmet Elementary School, closed by the city in 2013, into a center for workforce development, job training and vocational education. Other parts of the project would invest more resources into Austin College and Career Academy.
Each component of the project is designed to have a catalytic effect by supporting other parts. The childhood center will create a continuum of support that will magnify the impact of the initiative’s investments in job readiness, Travis said.
“That’s important not only to improve educational opportunities within the neighborhood, but also, parents who want to go to work or want to go over to Emmett for job training, they obviously need high-quality child care,” Travis said.
The proposed health center will include exercise rooms and recreation areas that can be used for after-school programs, Travis said. The facility will benefit all residents in the area to “really allow people to age in place and have a healthy life,” she said.
“A healthy life means, a healthy education, a healthy body, a healthy home, a healthy job and, you know, to make sure that people can do that right there in Austin and not have to move somewhere else to do it,” Travis said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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