Seneca Oaddams, 44, bought his two-flat in Roseland for $132,000 a little over two years ago — months before the pandemic began. He wanted to put down roots in the neighborhood where he grew up.
The property, which he purchased as an investment and rental property, now has an estimated worth of $250,000, according to the real estate website Redfin. But having endured 17 months of the pandemic, Oaddams says it’s hard to hold on to the building. His tenant, whose rent covers approximately half of Oaddams’ monthly mortgage, lost her job at the start of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to keep up her payments. She applied for rental assistance and is waiting to hear back.
“She has children, so I’ve got to make sure the children are OK,” Oaddams said. “I bought this building for that purpose — to make sure people with low incomes can have someplace to stay. That’s the purpose of me purchasing the building and my living here so it was a win-win. Now that the pandemic happened, it kind of messed a lot of things up.”
Oaddams also applied for assistance from the Illinois Rental Payment Program and is waiting for his application to be processed. He’s been avoiding forbearance on his mortgage by dipping into his savings.
“Hopefully, the program can help me out as a landlord and get me back on track,” he said.
Homeowners such as Oaddams are exactly who the new Chicago Flats Initiative, which is being spearheaded by Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago and other groups, aims to help. The goals of the initiative are to preserve and rehab two- and four-flats, maintain rental affordability, and help homeowners build wealth. The initiative is working to accomplish that by connecting homeowners and renters to available mortgage and rental assistance programs.
With two- and four-flats making up 26% of Chicago’s housing stock, the structures are as synonymous to Chicago’s landscape as the bungalow, and yet the “workhorse” of the city’s housing stock is disappearing, according to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. In some areas, the buildings are being razed and not replaced because of deferred maintenance and difficulty in upkeep, while in other areas, two- and four-flats are being converted into single-family homes.
Neighborhood Housing Services launched the initiative in partnership in June with at least eight community organizations after months of weekly conversations about pooling resources for this type of small-unit landlord.
“Particularly in underserved neighborhoods, this is such a critical housing stock,” said Donna Clarke, chief operating officer of Neighborhood Housing Services. “This housing stock provides so much affordable housing in these communities. In the Hispanic/Latinx community, almost 50% of the population live in two- to four-units, and in Black communities, it’s more like 30%. What we’re worried about is coming out of this crisis, how many of them are going to go into foreclosure?”
Clarke said that as the eviction moratorium is lifted, her group is focused on making sure tenants and landlords have taken advantage of resources available to stabilize their housing.
Resources offered through Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago for the Chicago Flats Initiative include:
- HUD-certified financial counseling services and homebuyer education classes
- Foreclosure prevention resources
- Competitive mortgage loans
- Home purchase assistance grants of up to $20,000; home improvement grants up to $25,000
- Health and safety inspections
- Construction management services
Heather Barnes, a Roseland resident and owner of an 1890-built two-flat, has been working on the Chicago Flats Initiative in her role as housing organizer for Communities United. She’s spent time knocking on doors in her neighborhood to inform and educate homeowners, tenants and landlords on available resources that will make it possible for residents to stay in their homes.
Door-knocking campaigns have taken place in a number of areas such as Garfield Park, Austin, Greater Chatham, Englewood, Belmont Cragin, Albany Park and West Ridge. But Barnes said the estimated number of evictions that will occur once the eviction moratorium comes to an end is scary. With no hard count on how many flats are in the Roseland community, she doesn’t know how many they will lose in the pandemic crisis. Instead she focuses on efforts to rehab them, update them and save them.
“Why not? They’re beautiful buildings and good structures,” Barnes said.
Oaddams, a Communities United board member, said it’s all about figuring out how to keep more of these types of homes in Black and brown neighborhoods. The pandemic is definitely a struggle, he says, but he walks in faith and tries to look at the Chicago Flats Initiative as a way to mitigate displacement and help stabilize low- and moderate-income families.
“I’m actually hopeful for the future,” Oaddams said. “I’m hopeful that it’s going to get better. … It needs to get better. Who doesn’t want to own property? Why not be able to help someone as well and lessen the load on your pocket with a building, so it’s a win-win for the renter and the tenant? The problem is when the rent can’t get paid.”
“We’ve been busy on all fronts trying to get money out the door and trying to give people financial strategies to get them through this period,” Clarke said. “One thing that I learned being part of this initiative is that it’s that intimate relationship between the landlord and the tenant that keeps these units affordable. We want to preserve that intimate relationship as part of this initiative because they’re dependent on each other — the tenant pays their rent, that’s how the landlord pays the mortgage and keeps the property up. It’s this whole circle of life that we’re trying to bring back into balance.”
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