Preservation of Affordable Housing

Until the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) intervened, Grove Parc Plaza was a run-down stretch of Section 8-assisted housing along Cottage Grove Avenue in Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side.

The 504-unit complex, one of the most dilapidated in the city, faced foreclosure and demolition. POAH, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore at-risk affordable housing, tore down the existing structure and replaced it with Woodlawn Center South (WCS), a new LEED Silver-certified apartment building.

Before WCS, the layout of Grove Parc Plaza left dark, unpatrolled areas around entrances and walkways. Frequent crime, such as gang violence, fatal shootings, and robbery, drove retailers away and made joblessness rampant. Lack of access to technology or reliable Internet left residents disconnected from opportunities for self-advancement.

POAH saw in the 40-year-old complex an opportunity to bring stability and hope to Woodlawn. In 2008 the organization began meeting with residents to discuss how an energy- and water-efficient new construction could meet their needs. The residents welcomed the intervention and in December 2008 POAH opened a Chicago office and secured the site.

Implementing a creative financial structure enabled POAH to break ground two years later. The organization pooled low-income tax credit equity from JP Morgan Chase, tax credit exchange funds from the Illinois Housing Development Authority, a low-income housing development grant from the City of Chicago, solar thermal grants, municipal funding, and private loans to finance WSC’s construction, which took about a year.

Along with the LEED certificate, WCS earned a two-star rating from the Green Homes for Chicago program for employing sustainable design and construction methods. Every appliance in the building has an Energy Star rating. A super-insulated slab, walls, and roof; low U-value windows; and an airtight building envelope keep residents comfortable throughout the year.

POAH secured a $75,000 grant to build a system of pervious paving, catch basins that double as planting beds, rain gardens, a permeable walkway, planters, and patio pavements. The system keeps 100% of storm water on-site and returns it to the landscape to nourish native plants and reduce pollution and maintenance.

Four years after their initial meeting, POAH and WCS residents remain in contact. “When people move into our newer housing,” said POAH’s vice president, Bill Eager, “our property management meets with them. Part of the meeting is the orientation with what they can and are expected to do to help us maximize the efficiency of the building.”

The revitalization of Woodlawn has only just begun. The completion of WCS kicks off a 5-year redevelopment effort that includes several new buildings, including a youth center, housing for seniors and market-rate buyers, and 65,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. A centerpiece of the project is the Woodlawn Resource Center, which gives the community access to job placement, financial counseling, literacy, education, and training opportunities. It also hosts community meetings, empowering residents to come together in a newly invigorated environment.

To finance the latest effort, POAH pursued and won a $30.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods initiative in 2011. The initiative is part of HUD’s reinvestment in distressed housing sites. It supports the creation of “neighborhoods of choice,” with investments in community infrastructure, including new and renovated housing, schools, day care, health services, public safety programs, and other resources for residents.

POAH continues to invest in the Woodlawn community. The organization plans to monetize energy savings from the apartments and return the benefits to the neighborhood. “The housing we replaced was very old, obsolete, and in poor shape,” said Eager. “Having something brighter and more welcoming has already changed the character and safety of Cottage Grove Avenue.”