Could the South Side Be a Pioneer in Diverse Home Building?

A neighborhood like Woodlawn, hit hard by the housing bust, has big potential for the sustainable builders Greenline Development.

A new home by Greenline Development Photo: Dennis Rodkin

Benjamin Van Horne has built a handsome, eco-friendly house in Irving Park that he hopes to sell for $699,900. But he’d really rather be building homes about ten miles south of the site, in Woodlawn.

That’s where Van Horne’s firm, Greenline Development, was building during the boom years—and where I first found its work, in 2009. “My company is called Greenline because I wanted to build in neighborhoods that were once redlined,” Van Horne says. “Woodlawn and the South Side in general represent an opportunity to create the best that our urban spaces can be. There’s a chance for true diversity there, not just racial diversity, but economic diversity, diversity of age groups.”

He started out ten years ago with a derelict apartment building at 6647-53 S. Maryland that he acquired by paying the back taxes and then rehabbing it into 24 condominiums that sold for between $115,000 and $149,000. As the bust hit, he found he couldn’t sell his last three units, and converted them to rentals.

The bust hit Woodlawn hard: last April, our charts showed that home values in 2012 were more than 83 percent off from 2006, one of the city’s worst collapses. It soon became impossible to get funding to build in Woodlawn, Van Horne says, and building wouldn’t have made much sense anyway: “Home values were down below replacement value,” he says. “If you could build something, it wouldn’t be worth what it cost you to build.”

Van Horne switched to working on custom homes, rehabs and other projects on the easier-to-fund North Side, and began investigating what would go into a highly sustainable home. Last November, Greenline and partner MK Construction bought a rundown workers cottage in Irving Park. In October, they completed a four-bedroom home with an array of sustainable building techniques, from a layer of foam outside the foundation to insulated, tightly sealed windows and door frames. The wall insulation is made of recycled newspaper, the wood finishes are certified sustainable grown by the Forest Stewardship Council, and the heating and cooling systems were carefully engineered to minimize resource use.

It’s also a nice-looking house, from the big windows on the front through to the stylish kitchen. Van Horne was clearly proud as he showed me around the house last week.

“My heart is in Woodlawn,” he said. He’s been trying for three years to, as developers like to say, “put deals together,” but nothing has gotten completed. A townhouse development in North Kenwood may soon roll forward. Van Horne believes his track record in the pre-bust years shows he can “produce a product that is higher quality and more durable, and better for the neighborhood and its inhabitants,” but “the money to do it isn’t there.”

Others have been trying to help Woodlawn come back, too. Last week, the affordable housing group POAH unveiled the second chunk of its Woodlawn Park, a three-block revitalization of the once-troubled Grove Parc Plaza. The project benefited from $30.5 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. The University of Chicago has visibly tried to be a better neighbor with Woodlawn, which lies to its south.

And Robust Coffee has become a vital neighborhood center in an area where coffee houses aren’t anywhere as plentiful as they are in affluent North Side neighborhoods.

Van Horne makes it clear he wants to be part of that revival. Standing in the pretty kitchen of the Irving Park house last week, he told me, “I want to get back to work in Woodlawn, for sure.”

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