Austin Ascending Improves Vintage Homes

By Jessica Hartshorn

Plenty of homes in Austin have the same vintage charm found in Oak Park: Just ask 30- year resident Leona Thomas, owner of a three-flat on North Austin Boulevard. She will tell you about the unique doorways, the original doors, and the stucco walls in the exceptionally spacious, three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment that she rents out. This home also boasts a kitchen at least twice the size of its average Oak Park counterpart.

Thomas and her husband are part of a group of 11 other property owners in Austin who have received a grant through the Oak Park Regional Housing Center’s Austin Ascending program. Through Austin Ascending, owners of two- to four-unit buildings are eligible for up to $4,000 per unit to improve vacant apartments. This program also works with local contractors who either live in or have their business in Austin so that all the funds stay in the community. With her grant, Thomas was able to give every wall a new coat of paint, install new light fixtures, and upgrade the bathrooms as well as kitchen appliances. Other property owners have used their grants to install new ceiling fans, repair original tile, and restore original vintage woodwork.

Worlds' unit on North Mayfield with new paint and refinished floorsThe purpose of Austin Ascending is to make already viable homes more marketable. This grant program helps encourage folks who may not have otherwise considered the Austin neighborhood to move there. Thus far, Austin Ascending grants have been used to make improvements in 17 apartments across the area.

At the onset, this grant was funded solely by HOPE Fair Housing. After a tour of several completed homes, stakeholders were impressed with the program’s success and increased funding. This program has since garnered additional funding from Chase Bank, the Monroe Foundation, and the Field Foundation, as well as letters of support from Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin.

What’s more, instead of working alone in their efforts to highlight this historic Chicago neighborhood, Housing Center staff are working alongside a firmly established community organization called Austin Coming Together (ACT). While Austin Ascending focuses on multi-family homes, ACT has recently formed the Levin Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) to focus on single family homes. LPNA provides subsidy assistance of up to $70,000 to qualified homebuyers who purchase and rehab homes in the neighborhood.

“Our efforts have been enhanced by Austin Ascending’s ability to assist small landlords to upgrade their rental units,” says Andrew Born, co-director of ACT.

Born’s colleague Bill Jones, project coordinator for the LPNA adds, “Potential homebuyers are more encouraged to invest in the Levin Park neighborhood when they see current owners reinvesting in their property.” The LPNA will host a festival and Trolley Tour to showcase potential homes for sale.

Austin community organizations and property owners alike are excited about the investment in their neighborhood that Austin Ascending represents. This is the place they call home. Residents like Leona Thomas enjoy living here because, she says, “I know all my neighbors. It’s a real community.” As a grant recipient, she believes Austin Ascending is beneficial because it “provides funding to improve property and it brings Austin to the attention of people who might not think of living there.”

Preserved vintage fireplace in Austin-area apartmentAnother program participant, Monica Worlds, has lived in Austin since her family moved there in 1969. She and her neighbors share a sense of pride in their properties.

“The neighbors here take care of each other,” she says. “There’s unity here.” Mrs. Worlds rents her three-bedroom for $950/month and it sits just two streets east of Oak Park on North Mayfield Avenue.

A few blocks northeast, one new owner purchased and fully rehabbed a house, complete with new appliances, countertops, and in unit laundry all while managing to preserve the original wood floors and a decorative vintage fireplace.

Residents in this affordable neighborhood are investing in vintage homes on Austin Blvd. and a couple blocks over, just footsteps away from Oak Park. Community groups, investors, and most importantly, neighbors invite those looking to move to live in this unified community in these beautiful homes that have been passed over long enough. Come into the Housing Center to learn more about how Austin is ascending.

Jessica Hartshorn is the Austin Ascending Program Director for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.