Durbin: federal stimulus program working in Evanston

By:  Jonathan Bullington
Tribune Local - Evanston

Evanston’s use of federal stimulus dollars to rehabilitate vacant and foreclosed properties is a prime example of the program’s success, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The senator made that assessment Friday morning while touring properties in south Evanston that were purchased and are being rehabilitated with a portion of the $18.15 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 funds awarded to Evanston.

“I wish I could bring some of my senate colleagues who go on the senate floor everyday and say the president’s stimulus was a failure,” Durbin said. “It’s the punch line for jokes on late night TV. They ought to come here and take a look at this, and realize that what’s happened here is we’ve not only saved neighborhoods, but we’re helping the city in areas that might have gone into blight or worse.”

“That’s what the stimulus was all about,” he added. “Come to Evanston, Illinois, if you want to see how it works.”

Flanked by Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, various aldermen and city officials, Durbin toured two properties in south Evanston. The first, located at 140 Callan, is a three-flat that was foreclosed in 2008 and purchased last month by Brinshore Development, LLC – the city’s NSP2 partner. Rehabilitation work on the property is expected to begin early next year, officials said.

Outside the property, Durbin asked officials to assess the city’s current needs.

“The need is to help people who are still in their homes having struggles,” said Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th, one of two aldermen of NSP2-targeted wards. NSP2 “money can only help when they’re vacant.”

Durbin said that facet of the economic downturn is one where the federal government has struggled, largely because the government has not been able to pressure financial institutions into working with homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure.

“In those situations, the government has not done well because we’re waiting for the banks to volunteer with some incentives to step up,” he said. “I think we have to move to a different level, because I don’t think this recession really comes to an end until this question is answered: Where is value in real estate?”

“You go through Fannie (Mae) and Freddie (Mac) and the appraisal process, and there’s a wide disparity between local lender valuation and Fannie, Freddie valuation,” Durbin added.

Durbin and company next toured a two-flat at 313 Custer Ave. The property, acquired in May of this year, is under rehabilitation and expected to be completed by the end of the year.

While at the property, Durbin met with some contractors employed through the NSP2 program. City officials said the program has created or retained an average of 16.88 full-time equivalent jobs per quarter, beginning in the second quarter of 2010. To date, $2.7 million in subcontracts have been awarded.

The city set a goal of awarding 25 percent of subcontracts to minority-owned, woman-owned, or Evanston-based businesses. Currently, 33 percent has gone to minority-owned businesses, 46 percent has gone to woman-owned businesses, and 78 percent has gone to Evanston-based businesses, officials said.

“The stimulus is working,” Tisdahl told Durbin.

Durbin praised the city’s efforts, saying he knew Evanston would successfully carry out NSP2 program goals.

“You just knew Evanston would do this right,” he said.

He also said he would remember his visit on his return trip to Washington D.C.

“The next time one of my colleagues gets up on the floor and starts railing about the stimulus, I’m going to tell them the story of Grey (Avenue) in Evanston, and other streets just like it that have seen a rebirth in confidence, and a rebirth in housing opportunities,” Durbin said.

In addition to south Evanston, the NSP2 program has targeted an area of west Evanston also hit hard by foreclosures. In February of 2010, Durbin joined U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in a tour of Grey Avenue on the city’s side.

“I hope you come back when we’re done,” Brinshore CEO David Brint said of Grey Avenue. “It’s a miracle.”

According to Eleanor Lord, a resident of Grey Avenue and chairwoman of the 1700/1800 Grey Ave. Block Club, federal stimulus dollars have brought a positive change to the neighborhood.

“There’s life now in our neighborhood,” she said. “At one time, there was so may boarded up buildings. I wondered what was going on with our neighborhood. With NSP2, we can see the improvement. We can see it working.”

“It gives us life,” she added. “It gives us hope to be proud of our neighborhood.”