Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Plan to rehab foreclosed properties makes sense; why aren’t feds on board?

By Mark Brown, columnist

When Diane Limas talks, I listen, and I’d always advise others to do the same.

Limas, 70, is the volunteer president of Communities United, which used to be known as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council until the group did so many good works that one neighborhood couldn’t hold it.

I listen to Limas because she is an absolute salt-of-the-earth neighborhood type with a fiercely honed sense of right and wrong when it comes to matters of social justice, not to mention a very effective organizer.

And right now, Limas and her fellow citizen “leaders” in Communities United believe they have identified an important issue that, if it isn’t an injustice, is definitely an opportunity for better justice that is slipping away.

Diane Limas addresses crowd after attending shareholders meeting. Demonstrators march from ThompsCenter CME Group annual meeting meet shareholders as they

Diane Limas addresses the crowd after attending a shareholders meeting. Demonstrators march from the Thompson Center to the CME Group annual meeting to meet shareholders as they leave the meeting, followed by a return to the Thompson Center for their own meeting on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Communities United wants Federal Housing Finance Administration Director Mel Watt to listen to its proposal to partner with a nonprofit developer to rehab some Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac foreclosed properties on its turf to keep the rents affordable.

In the meantime, the group wants Watt to declare a moratorium on the sale of foreclosed properties in five Northwest Side ZIP codes — 60618, 60625, 60630, 60645 and 60659 — until it has had an opportunity to negotiate the purchase of 20 residential buildings it has identified for a pilot project.

Three Chicago members of Congress — Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Luis Gutierrez and Mike Quigley — have taken up the cause and sent a letter asking for a meeting with Watt. They, too, apparently have learned it’s good to listen to Limas.

I first met Limas when the Albany Park group went to bat for renters being squeezed out of their homes through no fault of their own after banks foreclosed and tried to evict them, often using illegal measures. They had paid the rent, but the owners hadn’t paid the mortgage.

You probably remember when Sheriff Tom Dart came to their aid and declared his own moratorium on evictions until the courts took notice of the harm that was occurring.

Out of that effort grew City Council passage of the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance, intended to provide protections for renters caught in the middle of foreclosures.

Limas would be the first to tell you the ordinance doesn’t always work as intended, as many lenders — for reasons neither of us quite fathom — continue to prefer vacant properties at risk of vandalism to occupied buildings with rent-paying tenants. Still, the ordinance “stopped the bleeding,” she says.

Limas is politically to the left of me, if you can believe that, so we don’t always agree. Yet, I’m sure you’d still find her better grounded in the values and attitudes of average Chicagoans.

Limas’ daughter, Arlene, was a 1988 Olympic gold medalist in tae kwon do, which I mention only because it speaks to mom’s own determination and tenacity.

At the moment, Limas’ focus is the rapid gentrification that is pricing long-time residents out of Albany Park, in part because “the foreclosure crisis has decimated the affordable housing stock, as cash investors flip foreclosed properties into luxury rentals or pricey single-family homes,” which is how the Congress members put it in their letter to Watt.

Some of you would argue that’s not entirely a bad thing, and I’m aware of the limitation of interfering in the real estate market.

But most of the two- to four-flat foreclosed buildings in Albany Park are now held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the community group calculates.

You remember Fannie and Freddie, the privately owned, government-supported secondary lenders whose policies contributed to the foreclosure crisis and required a federal bailout.

Limas figures that having helped cause the problem, they ought to be part of the solution — by selling the group properties at a slightly discounted price.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the conservator for Fannie and Freddie, has created something called the Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative to help clean up the foreclosure mess through similar means.

But Communities United fears the agency would prefer to target its stabilization efforts in Chicago to more distressed areas such as Englewood and deal only with vacant properties.

“Is their mission to get rid of properties nobody wants or to stabilize neighborhoods?” Limas asks with characteristic indignation.

The agency’s only comment Friday was: “We have met with community groups and area nonprofits and have an ongoing and open dialogue.”

Communities United’s development partner, Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development, is set to close at the end of the month on its first property — a brick four-flat in the 4500 block of North Central Park — which they believe could be a model to be applied to other parts of the city.

Communities United took its new name recently in recognition of its expansion into North Park, Irving Park and West Ridge with an eye on Belmont-Cragin.

That’s a bunch more politicians who will need to learn to listen to Diane Limas, if they haven’t already.