IFF’s Continuum in Practice: Going Deep in Place in Chicago’s North Lawndale Neighborhood

IFF’s Continuum in Practice: Going Deep in Place in Chicago’s North Lawndale Neighborhood

In a Nutshell

What: An overview of IFF’s place-based work in North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago where the full spectrum of IFF’s toolkit has been deployed to support residents and other community stakeholders in their work to improve the quality of life in the community.
Location: Chicago, IL (North Lawndale)
Impact: Since 2018, when a comprehensive quality-of-life plan was launched in North Lawndale, IFF has facilitated the development of critical community infrastructure that is increasing access to quality affordable housing, education, and health care, as well as workforce development services vital to the long-term viability of the neighborhood. 

In his blog, The Continuum, IFF CEO Joe Neri has outlined why successful community development requires more than capital alone, highlighting the range of activities IFF engages in and the tools deployed beyond flexible loans to help community changemakers mitigate and solve local problems. Though much of this work at IFF takes places behind the scenes, the result is highly visible: new or renovated facilities that nonprofits use to serve more people, to provide more services or services at greater depth, and to support the community in new, dynamic ways.

On a more basic level, these facilities send a message about the community itself. As longtime IFF client and Detroit Achievement Academy Founder Kyle Smitley has noted, “Buildings communicate a lot internally to the people who are in them, and they communicate just as much externally to the neighborhoods where they’re located. Space communicates value and wealth; it always has.”

What, then, can be achieved by going deep in place in a specific community — deploying the full range of IFF’s tools — to create the community infrastructure local stakeholders desire? And what does that look like in practice? To answer these questions, we look to the North Lawndale community on Chicago’s West Side.

North Lawndale in Focus

Less than three miles from Chicago’s Loop, North Lawndale is a historic, culturally rich community that’s home to roughly 35,000 residents with aspirations like those in any other neighborhood in the city. Among them are the desire to live in a quality, affordable home; to send children to high-performing schools; to have opportunities for economic advancement, and more. North Lawndale is also a community saddled with the results of decades of disinvestment, systemic racism, and neglect, the effects of which were outlined in a recent report.

Though efforts to redevelop portions of North Lawndale achieved incremental progress over the years – including several successful projects spearheaded by the Foundation for Homan Square (FHS) on the former Sears campus – complex challenges related to housing, health, employment, education, and more remained. In 2015, the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC) was formed in response to these challenges, bringing together residents, business owners, elected officials, community-based organizations, and other community stakeholders to guide the first comprehensive community planning and implementation effort in North Lawndale in nearly 60 years.

Following an exhaustive process that engaged North Lawndale residents “early and often,” NLCCC unveiled a quality-of-life plan in 2018 designed to address community-identified needs and ensure that local stakeholders would remain the navigators of their own destiny amid a wave of gentrification sweeping toward the neighborhood. Located near a coveted stop along the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line – the last on that line before the neighborhoods begin to look drastically different – the proactive approach to community-led revitalization serves as a bulwark against a pattern of displacement that has played out in countless communities throughout Chicago.

And after being invited to the table to help advance NLCCC’s vision for a purpose-built community where residents can thrive in place, IFF and FHS are partnering to support key elements of the plan by focusing resources in service of the community’s vision, and, when necessary, convening the stakeholders necessary to translate ideas into action. Though not encompassing every touchpoint in North Lawndale, the projects and activities in the sections below are representative of how we’re working in partnership with the community to explore and implement solutions to complex, place-based challenges.

More capital for more changemakers in North Lawndale

The two model homes developed by LCDC

Though capital alone isn’t enough for successful community development, sometimes that’s all that’s needed for a nonprofit to contribute to broader revitalization efforts. Such was the case for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC), which IFF loaned $500,000 to in October 2020. With the capital, LCDC developed two affordable, single-family homes that established proof of concept for the nonprofit’s plan to build 250 affordable homes in North Lawndale that will create opportunities for generational wealth building through homeownership. In the process, LCDC is addressing pressing needs identified in the NLCCC’s quality-of-life plan related to housing and economic development.

“The first two model homes allowed us to test different methods to replicate this at scale, but it also created a sense of hope in the community,” explained LCDC Executive Director Richard Townsell in a 2021 interview. “People began to understand the vision of what building affordable single-family homes can do for a block, and, more importantly, that these homes are for them.”

The project was the realization of a years-long relationship between Townsell and IFF, and it was through that trust that IFF could step in as a partner to explore a path forward. This was new territory for LCDC. Because IFF was focused on how the project would move the needle on systems change, we were able to show up differently not only in product but approach, tying the source of repayment to the model homes, initially, for example.

A Propel event at North Lawndale Employment Network’s headquarters at 1111 S. Homan Ave.

To ensure that more changemakers like LCDC have access to the resources they need to improve quality of life in the community, IFF launched in 2021 a new marketing initiative rooted in equity-centered outreach activities in North Lawndale and four other communities on Chicago’s south and west sides. In addition to direct mail outreach and social media campaigns, the initiative has included a series of community “Propel” events at local businesses and nonprofits, including one in North Lawndale that brought together IFF lenders and real estate consultants with nonprofit leaders to develop relationships and uncover how IFF can better support BIPOC-led nonprofits in the neighborhood.

Paired with the outreach is a new capital product that’s structured with the specific needs of communities like North Lawndale in mind, offering “flex loans” of up to $50,000 to nonprofits that can be used to increase organizational capacity. Meant to maximize financial flexibility without burdening BIPOC-led nonprofits with administrative requirements, the program minimizes the supporting documentation required to apply for loans and offers an expedited closing process to put capital in the hands of community changemakers as quickly as possible.

Layering in real estate and construction expertise

North Lawndale Employment Network’s headquarters in North Lawndale, opened in August 2021

For North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) – which has helped thousands of Chicagoans who face barriers to employment join the workforce through job training, financial coaching, and job placement and retention – a partnership with IFF provided far more than capital alone. Formerly a tenant in the FHS-managed Nichols Tower, which offers low-cost lease options to help nonprofits incubate and mature, NLEN had outgrown its leased spaces and was searching for a location in the community to bring all of its operations together under one roof. Because of knowledge gained by participating in the first Chicago cohort of the JPMorgan Chase-funded Stronger Nonprofits Initiative, NLEN was well positioned to consider purchasing a permanent facility for the first time in its history.    

After a tip from FHS Executive Director Kevin Sutton that a former bank building in the community was for sale, NLEN engaged IFF’s real estate team to conduct a feasibility study that determined the organization was well positioned to convert the 20,000-square-foot space into a permanent headquarters that could double its capacity. Two IFF bridge loans totaling $5.875 million provided NLEN with the capital needed to move forward with the acquisition and renovation of the facility while waiting for fundraising campaign pledges to be fulfilled. Owner’s representation by IFF’s real estate team during the buildout out of the space then provided NLEN with the construction expertise needed to successfully complete the construction project.

NLEN’s project exemplifies the importance of facilitating capital absorption in under-resourced communities by providing additional services that maximize investment impact. By stepping in as a solutions-oriented thought partner with a deep understanding of what NLEN wanted to achieve and a willingness to work beyond a menu of services, IFF helped the nonprofit translate its vision into a purpose-built space that benefits the entire community by directly supporting strategies related to economic and workforce development in the NLCCC quality-of-life plan.

Translating ideas into tangible neighborhood assets through equitable community development

A rendering of two of the new buildings being developed in North Lawndale as part of an $11 million project that will create 21 new permanent supporting housing units for residents with disabilities.

With NLCCC finding that more than 5,000 renter households in North Lawndale struggled to pay for rent and utilities each month when developing its quality-of-life plan, increasing the supply of safe and affordable rental housing became a key priority. So, too, did the plan identify the need for infill development in the community to revitalize underutilized or vacant lots.

IFF, in partnership with FHS, is addressing both needs simultaneously while creating local jobs through construction by developing 21 new units of permanent supportive housing for residents with disabilities on four previously vacant lots. In doing so, we’re taking on a project that few other developers have the motivation, capacity, and patience to develop in an equitable way that takes into account the high-level needs of the community and the specific desires of North Lawndale residents engaged in the planning process.

An August 2022 groundbreaking for the project represented not just the beginning of construction, but a breakthrough in a yearslong quest to support the community’s vision for a safe and vibrant Homan Square that serves the people who call it home. Getting there required countless conversations to engage community members – including FHS’ Community Advisory Council – about what they hoped to see in the finished developments, assembling the capital stack for the $11 million project, and working with partners to secure the land and ensure alignment with other community development efforts in the area – including FHS, Illinois Housing Development Authority, Cook County Land Bank Authority, The Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, SPARCC, and Elevated Chicago.

“Community development begins with ideas like those outlined in the NLCCC quality-of-life plan, but, at some point, they have to become actionable,” says FHS Executive Director Kevin Sutton. “And that’s one of the ways that FHS and IFF play a key role in North Lawndale – by convening community members to hear their ideas and thoughts about community development, developing tangible objectives driven by the community’s vision, and advancing those objectives by focusing resources and convening the right partners so that initial plans lead to ribbon-cutting ceremonies.”

The 21 new apartments will include universal design features, and ground-floor units in each building will be fully accessible to residents using wheelchairs. With project-based rental assistance, 16 of the apartments will be affordable to residents earning up to 30 percent of the area median income and five will be affordable to residents earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. Once completed, the apartments will be owned and managed by FHS.

A rendering of the Harrison Gateway facility

Looking ahead, IFF and FHS are also partnering on the development of the Harrison Gateway Project, which will revitalize a long-vacant parcel of land once home to a liquor store that serves as a highly visible entry point to the community. The new development seeks to combine locally owned commercial space and co-working offices for nonprofits in an inviting, community-centric facility. The concept calls for the construction of a three-story, 17,800-square-foot, mixed-use building with food service and flexible office spaces. Community engagement has been at the center of the development process, led by FHS and IFF, and will result in a brightly colored building that’s a manifestation of the community’s vibrant future.

Sidebar

The Value of “Invisible Work” as a Community Convener

Providing loans and real estate expertise to community changemakers – supplemented by development projects to bridge gaps in the community infrastructure – has led to tangible impact in North Lawndale, but so too have less visible activities. NLCCC’s quality-of-life plan is an important roadmap for community development in North Lawndale, but there are other organized groups in North Lawndale playing equally important roles in defining the community’s future. Examples include Elevated Chicago and FHS’s Community Advisory Council, among others. 

By sitting on steering committees and being present in the community at a grassroots level, IFF and FHS serve as the connective tissue between groups with overlapping goals and play an important role in ensuring that parallel plans for community development drive toward the ultimate goal of a stronger, more vibrant North Lawndale. The myriad conversations and meetings that brings projects to life is the “invisible work” of community development – often taking place behind the scenes and during off hours.  

As a financial institution, IFF also frequently serves as a translator, engaging with funding and financing partners, state and local government, and other stakeholders to help them to understand projects and changemakers beyond the balance sheet. This is essential, as it equips these individuals and groups with the tools needed to articulate expected impact and effectively advocate for projects in a way that resonates within their organizations when decisions are being made about the capital needed to move projects forward to create thriving and equitable communities. Our goal is to effectively leverage our platform to be an influencer and advocate in the places and spaces from which changemakers have often been shut out. 

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