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Treasury Official: Chicago “At Forefront” of Development Efforts

Don Graves is executive director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and he is also deputy assistant secretary for small business, community development and housing policy at the U.S. Treasury Department.

He was in Chicago recently to attend meetings and to tour two LISC-supported developments: the Rosa Parks Apartments in West Humboldt Park and the Green Exchange business incubator in Logan Square.

Green Exchange developer David Baum shows some of the features of his innovative office building to senior Treasury Department official Don Graves (center) and Jonathan Greenblatt (left), a special assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Gordon Walek

Following those tours, Graves sat down with LISC senior scribe John McCarron to talk about the future of community development in a time of diminished public resources. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What did you see at Rosa Parks and Green Exchange that might inform your work at Treasury?

A: They show, I think, how people have learned over the past 10 to 20 years how to better use federal funding, federal programs, federal tax credits to get a better bang for the buck. They were able to lever a small amount of [federal] dollars into much bigger projects than they’ve done before. And these are both projects that enhance community stability and long-term economic development.

Q: Anything especially impress you?

A: Well, the Green Exchange concept is the type of thing we’d like to see more of across the country. Chicago, I think, is at the forefront in that respect – the ability to galvanize different segments behind greater community stability and economic development. 

Q: It gets complicated, though, doesn’t it?

A: Definitely. We’re seeing cities across the country using our programs, whether it’s CDFI [Community Development Financing Institutions] funding, New Markets tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, in ways that 20 years ago we couldn’t have imagined.

We’d like to see local developers and local businesses and local communities driving these sort of things – and for local, state and federal governments to be responsive to their needs – rather than us trying to tell communities what we think is important for their community.

Q: Obviously Green Exchange got a big boost when Coyote Logistics, with more than 500 young employees booking freight shipments via computer, leased a couple of floors. Were you surprised at what you saw there?

Graves and Greenblatt meet with Coyote CEO Jeff Silver (right) at the Green Exchange in Logan Square.

Gordon Walek

A: Not really. You’re finding that recent grads of colleges and universities are much more interested in being in a vibrant community and working for organizations that have an investment in those communities. Coyote is a great example. They’ve incorporated the desires and wants of their employees into their business model. That, plus the innovation involved in meeting a need within the shipping industry.

Q: But you didn’t see a lot of less-educated, less tech-savvy immigrants behind those computer consoles, did you?

A: No, but we have a real opportunity right now, within our high schools and our community colleges, for getting this kind of training – sciences, engineering, math – that is absolutely necessary for the Coyotes. But also the soft skills are important, the people skills, so they can talk to people on the phone and sell. That also has to be in the schools, but it needs to be supported at home and the broader community as well.

Q: Most federal programs used here might be considered ‘domestic discretionary’ and could be on the chopping block as Congress confronts the budget deficit. What’s in store?

A: One of the reasons I’m here is that we’re going to get to a place later this year where Congress will take the actions they need to take. So we [the Obama administration] have to think about the kinds of things we’re going to do going forward. So maybe I can help bring additional light about the great things that are occurring here, about great facilities like this, that we need to support so we can get the kind of jobs we need to grow the economy.

The federal officials' Chicago tour stops outside the Rosa Parks Apartment building on North Homan Avenue in Humboldt Park.

Gordon Walek

Q: So maybe you’ll be in a room with someone from OMB saying: ‘Please don’t cut this program because I’ve seen how it stimulates private investment in distressed neighborhoods!’

A: I guarantee you that folks like me will continue to voice support for New Markets tax credits, CDFIs, low-income housing tax credits, HUD 108 loans – all  programs we’ll need to create economic development and community stability  going forward.

Q: Does a Green Exchange help you make that case?

A:  Exactly. And we were at the Rosa Parks apartments earlier – a great example of how a community can bring together all the organizations and players. It’s organizations like the LISCs of the world and the Bickerdikes of the world. If we can’t find a way to get them what they need today, we’re going to be in a world of hurt for the next generation.

Q: What do you think of the emphasis on green technologies and systems?

A: We have to think about our environmental footprint, about the ways to sustain and reclaim our communities. If I were living and working in Chicago, the Green Exchange is the kind of facility I’d want to come to every day.

Q: Can’t let you go without asking about foreclosures. Our region saw 15,000 new filings just last month. The Treasury’s mortgage relief program, HAMP, has disappointed. Can that be turned around?

A: There is hope. HAMP didn’t hit its original target, but it did drive standards for the industry and caused the setup of proprietary [bank-run] mortgage modifications that no one expected. So a lot of what HAMP was supposed to do is getting done through proprietary models, including principal reductions.

New Coyote employees explain what motivated them to join the company – the largest employer in the Green Exchange.

Gordon Walek

On housing we’re seeing we’ve hit the bottom and nationwide we’re starting to see both increases in values and reductions in foreclosures. Now the president is calling for a refinancing program to help owners who are ‘underwater,’ and we’re seeing a lot of interest on both sides of the aisle in Congress. We’re also looking at changes to appraisal standards. Appraisals often are the sticking point in refinancing.

Q: Has the foreclosure crisis morphed into a jobs crisis?

 A: To some extent. Insecurity about jobs is leading folks to not want to buy new homes. But historically, investment in a home is the way to build a family’s wealth. It’s still the safest place for low- and moderate-income families to put their money. And with ownership you also tend to get a strong community buy-in.

Posted in Economic Development, Humboldt Park, Logan Square

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