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Group Exercise

By Valerie F. Leonard
Expert, Community and Organizational Development

Cottage Grove is a low-income community on Chicagos West Side, and is located about 15 minutes from Downtown,
and about 10 minutes south of Covington Heights, a recently-gentrified hipster community. The racial composition
is 60% African American, 38% Latino and 2% white. The median household income is $35,000, with about 35% of
the families living below the poverty line of $24,250. Putting this in perspective, the median household income in
Chicago was $47,831 in 2014, with about 22% living below the poverty line (Census.gov).
About 23% of Cottage Groves housing stock is owner-occupied, with 77% being rental properties. A significant
number of the homeowners are aging. In many instances, the homeowners children have moved away to more
affluent neighborhoods. The majority of the buildings are 2-3 story walkups that are over 100 years old. The
buildings are architecturally significant, and tend to be greystone or brick. While the housing stock is solid, age and
income restraints have made it difficult for many homeowners to maintain the properties as well as theyd like. There
are also a number of absentee landlords who do the bare minimum to maintain their properties. The Cottage Grove
community also has the highest percentage of project based Section 8 vouchers in the City of Chicago. Many of
these units were rehabbed with low income housing tax credits that are set to expire within about 10 years. Of the
communitys 10,000 occupied housing units, 600 are tied up in building court with building code violations. There
are 3,000 more vacant properties, including vacant lots and buildings. Land values are relatively low, while the taxes
are based on assessments generated in 2006, when the housing prices were artificially inflated. Property taxes in
Cottage Grove increased at a faster rate than other areas of the city over the past 7 years.
There are 25 schools remaining in the Cottage Grove community after the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed a
record 50 schools in 2013. Five of the fifty schools were from Cottage Grove, more than any of Chicagos 77
communities. The remaining schools are under-resourced and many are under-utilized by CPS standards. About
one third of the schools are charter schools; one third are turnaround schools and the remaining third are traditional
public schools. The charter and turnaround schools tend to be run by people with strong ties to real estate
developers and venture capitalists.
Cottage Grove ranks #3 in the city in terms of violent crime, and is one of the top 6 communities in the state of Illinois
for returning prisoners. The crime rate is a deterrent to attracting new businesses and residents.
There are about 140 nonprofit organizations providing a range of services, including social services, housing, youth
development, leadership development, civic engagement and public safety. There are 500 active block clubs.
The community has strong infrastructure. There is access to two major expressways within fifteen minutes north or
south of the community. The two rail lines going through the community have been upgraded within the past 10
years. There are major arterial roads running east and west, and north and south. The sewer systems run pretty
well, the streets are in good repair and high speed internet is available to anyone who can afford it. There are also
programs available to assist low income residents to have internet access.
In spite of the strong infrastructure, the business climate is weak. The work force is relatively unskilled, compared to
other communities and educational attainment is relatively low. The unemployment rate is about 25%, which is more
than three times the national average. Most people who remain in the workforce tend to work in mature
manufacturing and logistics, social services or government. While many large corporations have left the community,
there are still about 500 manufacturing concerns in the community. Most mom and pop stores are not owned by
local merchants. The commercial strips are only about 40% utilized, and the only national chains in the community
are gas stations. There are over 100 churches, a significant number of which occupy commercial spaces. While
there are 6 TIFs in the community, there is very little community engagement in economic development policy. Nor is
there any evidence that the developers and businesses that take advantage of the TIF programs hire local residents.
The community has not been through a comprehensive planning process in over 50 years.
Given the situation described above, come up with a community-driven plan of action. Answer the questions on the
following page and share your responses with the full group.

If you were to recommend a community revitalization process for the community, how would you proceed?
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What would be your goals?
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What actions would you take?
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What outcomes would you expect?
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How would you ensure long term sustainability of your planning process?
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About the Author


Valerie F. Leonard is an expert in community and organizational development who helps organizations build greater
capacity to have a positive impact on their clients and communities. She is the host of the Nonprofit U blog radio
talk show and teaches courses in nonprofit operations for the UIC Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. For
more information, visit www.valeriefleonard.com.