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Housing for Hispanics: in the Reagan era, it takes a genius



"There are a lot of vacant lots. We can build family-size housing and fill those vacant lots," says Hipolito Roldan, in the tone of a man certain of his facts. "You can put a lot of work and a lot of money into rehabbing a building, and it really doesn't show that much from the outside. But if you put up new housing, you give the neighborhood the real sense that somebody thought enough of the community to build there. The neighbors respond to that. They put up new siding, they paint, they repair.

"The town houses we built have four bedrooms, a bath and a half, two stories, and a full basement, and a carport in the back. They're a great buy. The buyers put $2,500 down, and we had financing for them--many paid just about what they paid in rent for their old apartments. It was the only chance for many of these families to own their own home. The town houses cost about $63,000 to build--we were able to sell them for $52,000. With a federal home-owners' subsidy, they pay about 25 percent of their income. And these families are working themselves out of the subsidy."

Hipolito Roldan is the executive director of Hispanic Housing Development Corporation (HHDC). He is responsible for the development and maintenance of affordable, decent housing in Hispanic neighborhoods, including Palmer Square, a 160-unit, six-building rehab in Logan Square; Jorge Hernandez Apartments, a 54-unit, three-building rehab in Humboldt Park; and Green Meadow Apartments in downstate Danville, a 150-unit project. Roldan, known to his friends as Paul, is the guiding light of HHDC. "I was the first employee, back in 1976. I bought the paper clips. I got the telephone installed."

Roldan is of Puerto Rican extraction. He is tall, trim, and imposing, with curly dark hair combed back from a widow's peak and a bushy mustache that's shot with gray. He speaks with a Brooklyn accent that's had the rough edges sanded off by education, and comes across as intelligent and decisive. Roldan lives with his wife, Ida, and their two children in an unpretentious dark-brick bungalow on the northern edge of Oak Park.

In 1975 a group of civic leaders looked into the total lack of housing money going to Hispanics in Chicago. It turned out that few applications for funding came in from the diverse and disorganized Hispanic community--or communities; Roldan counts ten. The group decided to form one organization that would operate citywide. They needed an organized director, one with the right credentials.

Roldan, meanwhile, was looking for a new job. He had served as a squad leader in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, went to school, got a job working for a personal finance company, "and got involved, heavily, in community affairs." Later he went to school at night and earned a master's degree in urban studies, while working during the day as the assistant director of a development corporation in Brooklyn. "I was interested in working for people in public service, to a certain extent, but not in working in a government capacity," he says. Once he had his MA, he says, "I was ready to be the boss somewhere. Then the founders of Hispanic-Housing found me."

During his tenure, HHDC has developed 13 different projects, whose value Roldan estimates at $48 million. It has done everything from rehabbing apartments to building new town houses to constructing houses for the elderly to working on a shopping center. Humboldt Park and Logan Square are the primary focus of HHDC, although there are projects in Little Village and Pilsen as well. The projects range from the $450,000 "Club Casa," a commercial building that was turned into a gerontological clinic, to a $12.3 million rehab of 196 units in six buildings in Logan Square to the town house "infill" projects, 26 single-family residences that were built in Pilsen, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park. Many of the projects reflect Roldan's emphasis on family-size housing. "There's a tremendous demand for it," he says. "There aren't enough big apartments, and they never get advertised on the street. They're handed around in families, between friends." The town houses fill a double purpose: they provide larger housing units, and they make it clear that someone wants to invest in the community.

One of HHDC's first projects was an 80-unit building for the elderly in Humboldt Park. Las Moradas had been built with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, under a special section, 202, of the Housing Act. "In 13 years, there had never been a Hispanic organization or project [under Section 202] approved in Illinois. They were all turned down. We mapped out where the [other Section 202 buildings] were--and found they were funded all around Hispanic areas. There were Korean 202s, Japanese 202s, Chinese 202s funded; labor unions, churches, civic groups all had 202s--but there was never a Hispanic 202 funded. We took it all the way to Washington, to [HUD] Secretary [Samuel] Pierce. And we got the first Hispanic 202 funded in the midwest."

Most of HHDC's projects are rehabs of existing apartment buildings in predominantly Hispanic areas. Once the buildings are in shape, they're rented to carefully screened tenants. HHDC acts as a property-management company for 480 units of multifamily housing; another 157 units are on the way. "We're very careful about the marketing of our projects," says Roldan. "We got 989 applications for the Hernandez project. We'll get 500 applications for 80 apartments. There's a tremendous demand, and nowhere near enough product to satisfy that demand. We take great pains to select our tenants." What if they don't work out? "We evict them, period. We do thorough screenings--the final process is having out staff visit each and every tenant in their apartments, to see how they live, how they get along with each other."

The tenants are of decidedly mixed origins: Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, assorted South American. "In Diversey Square, in 196 apartments, we have 23 different nationalities," says Roldan. "Most of our projects reflect the population out there. We don't rent only to Hispanics; we want mixed developments. They're integrated to the extent that you see it in the communities, and we seek whites and blacks when they're minorities. We got some real resistance at first from white tenants, but once people get past that initial fear, it all works. There's a message there."

Even with rental subsidies from the city, state, and federal governments, it's not easy to maintain high-quality housing for the poor. "The message is, if we were Arthur Rubloff off in Lincoln Park trying to make the numbers right on a courtyard building, it would be a lot easier. We have similar buildings and the same costs, but the people can't pay the same rents."

The Kostner Neighborhood Shopping Center at the corner of Kostner and North in Humboldt Park is a departure for HHDC. To be constructed on a six-and-a-half-acre site purchased from the Schwinn bicycle company, it should benefit from the presence of nearby retailers, including Jewel and Osco. It will offer 90,000 square feet of leasable space and 435 parking spaces for an anchor tenant and a half-dozen smaller shops. HHDC got involved in a commercial development in part because of the jobs it will provide--approximately 110 temporary construction jobs and 225 permanent and part-time positions, which will, presumably, be filled by area residents. And having the shops they need close at hand will help residents feel more like they're part of a neighborhood.

Funding for all these projects is part private, part public. Public funds have become trickier to get in the last few years because of Reagan-administration cutbacks, and Illinois, unlike other states, says Roldan, has done nothing to take up the slack. "We thought we had created the wheel, and then the wagon changed direction," says Roldan. "There have been deep federal cuts in low-income housing. Each project's funding is very unique--it's like we're creating snowflakes here. Each project is launched with the hope that we can patch it together, knowing up front that the financing isn't in order. I find myself spending a lot of time hat in hand, begging and borrowing."

One effect of the cutbacks in federal financing is that HHDC's projects are smaller. What Roldan calls their "pipeline projects" include Logan Vistas, a seven-story apartment hotel being rehabbed into 49 units, and the 48-unit Diversey Square Phase II, where a strategically located courtyard building "in an advanced state of deterioration" is being brought up to snuff. "We're still working on projects, but we went from 200-unit projects to 50-unit projects. But a 200-unit project is easier to do, if the financing's there. We've had cuts of over 90 percent in the federal budget in the last few years since 1981, when we're spending $3 billion in defense. I guess the message is, we find ourselves at a point where we have such misdirected priorities.

"If you look at the issues in the neighborhoods, housing is only a small part of it. There are education problems, drug problems, incredible gang problems. There's a lack of quality of life in the neighborhoods, and they need attention. We need to address whether we're going to let our youth develop their talents or if we're going to house them in jail 15 or 20 years down the pike."

Roldan's creativity in dealing with housing problems was recently rewarded when he was named one of 31 national winners of "genius grants" from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on July 19, his 45th birthday. He intends to use a part of his $275,000 to pay for his children's college educations. The rest will go to address neighborhood problems, in the form of a scholarship fund for young Hispanics from Hispanic communities who are interested in going into his field. "They have the smarts; they don't have the money," he says. "I can use this money as leverage. I know a lot of people with money. Given the motivation, I think I could double or even quadruple whatever I put up with money from foundations. It's a nest egg that will grow with time."

Hispanic students in Hispanic communities, he says, "have a dropout rate of 65 percent. It's a real drain of human potential. If some of this money can make a change in even one kid's life, it's worth it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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