By John Byrne Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s latest attempt to get Chicago cops and firefighters to spread out into the city’s struggling neighborhoods has yet to draw much interest.

Six months after the mayor dangled a monetary carrot to try to get them to purchase homes in high-crime parts of the South and West sides, just two police officers have taken advantage, according to the city Department of Planning and Development. And both closed on houses in the South Side Chatham neighborhood that’s already known as a favorite landing spot for first responders and other city workers.

Emanuel’s program offers $30,000 loans to police officers and firefighters to buy a home in certain more violent areas of the city. If they stay for at least 10 years, they don’t have to pay the city back. It’s an idea employed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in previous decades that Emanuel restarted last year.

Because of the low participation so far, some aldermen are suggesting changes. But the mayor’s administration wants to see if the program gains steam as the weather warms up and more young officers enter the homebuying market.

The proposal set aside $3 million to pay for the loans and passed the City Council easily last year, but not without skepticism from some aldermen about whether it would spur investment in areas that need it most.

The program was organized to promote homebuying by police, firefighters and paramedics in parts of Chicago’s six most statistically violent police districts, which include portions of several neighborhoods beset by crime and disinvestment like South Lawndale and Englewood. The districts, though, also include less violent parts of the city, notably Chatham.

During a debate over the program last summer, South Side Ald. David Moore, 17th, said the city needed to spread out the incentives through different neighborhoods, lest the vast majority of the public safety officers use the $30,000 to buy houses in middle-class areas.

“It’s very important to me that we go back and try to designate certain percentages for certain areas for that encouragement,” Moore said at the time. “If all 100 move into Chatham … because if I’m a police officer, I’m picking Chatham over Englewood every day of the week.”

And West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr., 24th, also worried last year that police would just buy “on the better end of these districts,” saying that “would be doing a disservice to this program.”

Now both aldermen said they are troubled by the early results, but each suggested ways to fix the program.

Scott pointed out that the rules don’t allow people who make more than about $90,000 to get the loans. That disqualifies many cops who have been on the job for more than a few years.

“I know they’re looking at enticing some of the younger officers, but maybe we could look at raising those caps a little bit,” Scott said.

And Moore said it might make sense to let Chicago public school teachers and other city workers qualify. Both said the home loan program deserves more time to take hold.

“If there were eight, nine, 10 officers who had gotten the loans and they were all moving to Chatham I would be more frustrated,” Moore said. “But just two, I really want to see the city do more outreach and see if we can get people moving into some of these other neighborhoods in the coming months.”

Anthony Simpkins, the deputy commissioner for housing in the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the administration will keep trying to get the proposal on police and fire recruits’ radar as they come out of the academy. And he ascribed the slow start in part to the timing of the launch.

“It’s been operating for six months starting last October, which isn’t exactly the time of year when people are looking to buy homes,” Simpkins said. “We’re just getting into the spring homebuying season, so that could help it pick up.”

As more officers get involved, Simpkins predicted people with roots in different neighborhoods will look to use the money to buy homes in more areas.

This isn’t the first time City Hall has tried to nudge police officers into living in rougher parts of the city.

Daley launched his own small-scale police homebuying program in 1995, setting aside $100,000 and offering cops $5,000 forgivable home loans if they moved into parts of the city where at least half of the residents made no more than 60 percent of the area median income.

Starting in the mid-2000s, police officers and firefighters qualified for $3,000 loans for moving into certain neighborhoods and another $7,500 if they bought residences in designated areas Daley was trying to redevelop after tearing down Chicago Housing Authority buildings.

In all, 550 public safety officers availed themselves of $2.4 million in forgivable loans through the Daley-era programs between 1995 and 2010, according to Department of Planning and Development spokesman Peter Strazzabosco. He did not provide geographic information on where they bought their houses.

Like other city workers, Chicago police and firefighters are required to live in the city limits, and they have long clustered in a handful of neighborhoods. Chatham has for decades been a South Side focal point for African-American city employees, and home to lots of cops. Beverly, Garfield Ridge, Bridgeport, Jefferson Park, Portage Park and Edison Park are also among the neighborhoods with more than their fair share of municipal workers.

Police, firefighters and teachers unions in particular have long chafed at the residency restrictions and periodically called for them to be lifted. But Daley was adamant about the role they play as community anchors around the city, saying Chicago could lose its middle class if they were allowed to decamp to the suburbs.

Emanuel himself was noncommittal about the residency rules during his 2011 mayoral run as he tried to avoid needlessly angering the unions. But shortly after he won, he proclaimed the requirement too important to the fabric of Chicago neighborhoods to lift it.

©2018 the Chicago Tribune

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