MacArthur Foundation Awards Creative Organizations

Published February 16, 2012 5:18AM (EST)

CHICAGO (AP) — The MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named 15 organizations in six countries as winners of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Each was awarded between $350,000 and $2.5 million.

Their missions range from protecting ecosystems in Uganda and defending children's rights in the U.S. to empowering girls in Nigeria and working to avert conflict and human rights abuses around the globe.

Two Chicago organizations rooted in efforts to improve housing for lower income residents and lift neighborhoods out of poverty were among the winners Thursday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The work of both of the Chicago nonprofits, the Community Investment Corporation and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, includes projects to improve housing in and around the city, hit hard by foreclosures and scarred by thousands of vacant properties. Their awards are in recognition of the importance the MacArthur Foundation places on the issue of housing and its role in strengthening communities and the economy, said foundation President Robert Gallucci.

"Decent, stable and affordable housing is at the core of strong, vibrant families and communities," he said. "Research finds that stable, quality housing improves school performance, diminishes health problems for children and parents and lessens psychological stress."

As the U.S. economy recovers from recession, many areas of Chicago are still struggling and large numbers of single-family homes and apartment buildings remain empty.

"Vacant properties devastate neighborhoods. They breed crime, they attract drugs, they lower property values," said Hoy McConnell, director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

The public interest law and policy center he directs focuses on housing and education to try to break whole neighborhoods out of poverty and transform isolated public housing into mixed-income communities.

His group got the City of Chicago and surrounding Cook County to pass measures late last year requiring building owners and the financial institutions that hold properties during foreclosure to be responsible for maintaining them. That could allow local governments to put their money to better use, he said, noting that Chicago had to spend more than $15 million last year for the upkeep of vacant properties.

The group will use its $750,000 MacArthur prize in part to set up a two-year fellowship for leaders in the field to help it develop new ways to fight urban poverty.

The other Chicago group, Community Investment Corporation, was awarded $2 million that it will use to strengthen a program to make emergency repairs to and sometimes take ownership of multi-family buildings at risk of foreclosure and demolition.

"We're going to be able to expand that program and be even more aggressive in these target areas of the city," said the group's president, Jack Markowski.

Since 2003, it has bought 186 buildings, or almost 3,000 units of housing, in that program.

In its main area or work, the group has provided $1.1 billion in loans to rehabilitate more than 46,000 housing units for 115,000 Chicago-area residents in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods since 1984.

The work is especially important now, as parts of Chicago still grapple with joblessness and deteriorating homes even as some areas recover, he said.

"They're still struggling with unemployment and large numbers of vacant buildings and vacant lots and vacant storefronts," Markowski said. "The effects of this recession are lingering on and have multiplied and it's a big hole to dig out from under."

By Salon Staff

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