DECATUR — A year after the Decatur Housing Authority finished building eight modular houses on the city's near-west side, the energy-efficient, three-bedroom homes still sit empty as the search for buyers continues.
The homes in the 1000 block of West Macon Street, funded by $1.7 million from the Illinois Attorney General's Office, are part of an effort to stabilize and revitalize core neighborhoods. They cost $200,000 each to build, were assessed at $80,000 and have been listed for sale at $79,900.
Housing authority Executive Director Jim Alpi said officials are making progress after months of marketing and contacting potential buyers.
“We’ve got two people in the process of getting their financing, and we’ve had several people express interest,” Alpi said. “Some people were interested, but their financing did not go through.”
Much of the work was completed by November 2016, but landscaping and final touches were done in May 2017. The housing authority sent letters to about 30 interested people in July, after the Herald & Review began asking about the status of the project.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office awarded the money to Decatur in 2013 as part of a national foreclosure settlement. The grant included specific requirements, such as providing opportunities and guidance for home ownership. Prospective buyers take a course to learn the factors involved in owning a home.
“The education helps them understand how the banking system works, mortgages and all that,” Alpi said. “The idea is they are educated consumers.”
The target buyers are those with low-to-moderate incomes, Alpi said, but this creates other challenges. Following the recession, banks have higher standards for mortgages, Alpi said. As a result, a few people who took the course were not approved for a loan.
Many people have shown interest in renting the property, Alpi said, but the housing authority remains committed to selling the homes.
Madigan won the money when she sued the Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Ally Bank for their involvement in defrauding the public in the 2008 mortgage crisis. The grants were planned for community revitalization, demolition, and other programs, as long as the project was related to the foreclosure of property.
Annie Thompson, press secretary for the attorney general's office, issued the following statement in response to questions about the status of the Macon Street homes: “The Attorney General’s Office remains confident that the Decatur Housing Authority will fulfill their goals on this important project.”
The homes were built in a factory and delivered to Decatur, where they were installed in pieces on vacant lots. Seven have two stories and 2½ bathrooms, while the eighth is one story with two bathrooms. All have new appliances.
Housing authority and city officials, who helped choose the project site, saw the effort as a way to revitalize the near-West End neighborhood near Millikin University and the Oakwood business district.
The project also aligns with a sweeping citywide goal for neighborhood revitalization, with city leaders holding several large community meetings earlier this year to gather feedback about how to improve Decatur's core areas and quality of life.
Sue Lawson, president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations, said she understands why the housing authority is struggling to find buyers on West Macon Street.
“Until we can clean up a little more in those areas, it is going to be hard,” she said. “How many people are going to buy those, if all around them things are not improved?”
Lawson said the failure to fill new housing authority properties does not make her question the potential success of the larger revitalization push. She still believes things can improve and change, she said. The focus is to improve one thing at a time and then inspire others to improve their neighborhoods.
“We are thrilled they are trying to do something to make the city better,” Lawson said.
Part of an effort to revitalize the area around the homes is to remove the blockade at the end of the 1000 block of West Macon Street, which prevents people from driving to the neighborhood from Oakland Avenue.
Decatur city officials have said they were involved in planning and choosing a neighborhood for the project. As part of the plans, Alpi said, the city agreed to remove the blockade to open up the neighborhood. He said in July that he hoped the work would be done last summer.
Yet the city has not yet started work to remove the blockade. Alpi said in an email last week that he had asked Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus about the project as recently as the week before.
Tyus said in an email that he planned to talk to Alpi this week.
“(I) want to be able to talk to Jim (Alpi) and residents directly about the road before commenting and haven't had a chance to connect,” Tyus said.
Overall, the housing authority “remains optimistic” about filling the homes, Alpi said.
“This is all a learning experience in revitalizing old neighborhoods with new construction,” he said.