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A housing how-to for the Southland

Hazel Crest’s first priority will be make its Metrstati170th Street focal point for mixed-income transit-oriented development. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times

Hazel Crest’s first priority will be to make its Metra station at 170th Street a focal point for mixed-income, transit-oriented development. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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First fix: foreclosures

When it comes to housing, the first priority for the Southland is to deal with the foreclosure crisis, the “Homes for a Changing Region” report said, and many towns have started doing that in collaboration with the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.

In December, more than 80 foreclosed homes in nine suburbs were bought with government funding to be rehabbed and resold or razed for redevelopment. But such programs have been inadequate, according to the report.

In south Cook County, foreclosures were filed on 23,088 homes between 2006 and 2010, and thousands more are likely in the next few years, it said.

The “Homes for a Changing Region” report suggested:

Local leaders pressure banks and lending institutions to keep families in their homes. With prices of foreclosed homes so low, moderate- and middle-income families should be able to buy them.

Expand funding/loans for land acquisition. Some communities are buying vacant sites and waiting for redevelopment opportunities.

Government should offer incentives to private investors to buy and restore vacant homes that have been foreclosed on, and banks should be encouraged to lend money for such efforts.

Villages should strengthen and enforce property maintenance codes.

Government resources should focus on large-scale rehab programs at vacant, low-cost, single-family and multi-family home sites that have been foreclosed on. Once rehabbed, sites could be sold to new homeowners if banks were incentivized to offer affordable fixed-rate mortgages.

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Updated: March 1, 2012 8:17AM



Although it faces some obvious challenges, the Southland can bounce back strong from the ongoing housing crisis with some thoughtful planning. That’s one conclusion to be drawn from a 100-page report, “Homes for a Changing Region,” recently completed by the Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.

After the dust settles from this housing crash, the Southland market will take on a dramatic new look: one with smaller homes; rehabbed homes; transit-oriented, mixed-use developments; more senior housing options and a lot more rental units, according to the study.

It looked at the region while also making specific policy recommendations for the towns of Hazel Crest, Lansing, Olympia Fields and Park Forest to guide them through the future of housing — and avoid mistakes of the past.

“The housing market has changed. For the foreseeable future, it will not be business as usual,” said Nancy Firfer, of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The Southland has a lot of advantages that can be exploited for “sustainable future growth,” such as good transportation and rail resources, ideal sites for factories and distribution, an abundance of affordable work-force housing and aggressive leaders, the report stated.

On the other hand, the region has been hampered by segregation, declining property values, high unemployment, lack of retail development and high Cook County taxes.

It is recommended that the four suburbs focus on rehabilitating current housing stock, encourage in-fill development — where stores or homes sit vacant among occupied ones — promote transit-oriented development, stabilize neighborhoods and adopt less restrictive zoning and tougher property codes.

The four towns were selected for this planning project because they already collaborated during the foreclosure crisis, Janice Morrissy, director of the SSMMA’s housing initiatives said.

While the report offers specific ideas for these four communities, it stresses collaborating on a regional level.

“That is the key,” she said.

Even though the report focuses on housing, planners know that jobs and economic development on a regional level are needed to sustain housing.

“A lot of these strategies are not in the community’s hands but are regional,” Morrissy said. “This study gives us weight to move forward over the next 30 years.”

The biggest asset in the Southland is transportation, Firfer said.

“They need to refresh development around the train station,” she said. “If you strengthen that, the community grows around it.”

Park Forest and Olympia Fields already are working with Matteson on redeveloping the area around the 211th Street Metra station,
and planners urged them to continue.

Hazel Crest’s first priority will be to make its Metra station at 170th Street a focal point for mixed-income, transit-oriented development, village manager James Whigham said.

The plan also recommended transforming the intersection of 175th Street and Kedzie Avenue into “a more compact, pedestrian-friendly hub” and increasing pedestrian connectivity between homes and the commercial strip on 183rd Street.

“It will require a lot of hard work, but it’s not insurmountable,” Whigham said. The document contained no surprises to him but reaffirmed the village’s current comprehensive plan.

“It says we’ve got a wonderful diamond here, but it needs a new setting and some polish,” he said.

One challenge will be to attract developers and businesses to the area, he said.

Lansing has already extended its special taxing district along Ridge Road for another 12 years, said Kristi DeLaurentiis, the village’s planning and development director. She knows, as the plan suggested, the village needs to revitalize Ridge Road — a commercial core — and develop more pedestrian activity there, possibly with senior housing.

The plan recommended that Lansing attract a younger population and encourage housing in new, large-scale retail redevelopment.

Its priority is to stabilize its existing housing stock, and it has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to rehab homes in the vicinity of Ridge Road, DeLaurentiis said.

“We’re trying to create an active, lively pedestrian environment and housing for all stages of life,” she said.

In Park Forest, officials should adjust to smaller lot sizes to encourage in-fill development, continue to promote development in its downtown area and permit residential uses over commercial floors, the report said.

“As the village evolves, it is important that it continues to exert a leadership role in creating unique housing products that attract people from across the region,” the report said.

Olympia Fields should continue to focus on developing its Metra station areas, encourage new housing for young professionals and seniors and allow townhomes, condos and apartments.

While the village has been successful in “cultivating a strong community,” it should shift to “high-quality new development” that reflects the region’s demographics.

Both Morrissy and Firfer said people have to change their attitudes toward rental property because there is a growing demand for it.

Villages can strengthen property maintenance codes and work with landlords to hold them accountable and make them part of the community.

The plan is a blueprint for a new way of planning, Firfer said.

“It’s a map of things you could and should be doing,” she said.

In the past, communities planned “backwards,” she said. They planned for buildings first, then people. The plan urges towns to look at their residents now, what types of housing they have and who will be there in the future.

Firfer hopes the report will encourage private developers to see these towns in a different light and encourage banks to work with them.

“We don’t have all the answers, but this is a starting point,” Firfer said. “Some recommendations will take a long time, some will never happen. Some may not work, but at least it gets them focused and gets them going.”

“We may be like David (vs. Goliath) right now, but we have a slingshot with a heck of a rock,” Whigham said. “Being armed with ammunition like this report will make it easier.”



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