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Faced with a plummeting employment rate and a surge in home foreclosures during his first month in office, President Obama pinpointed the disaster with emblematic candor: “It’s like the American dream in reverse.” The American dream has long been in reverse in South Chicago, a working-class neighborhood just ten miles from downtown but light years from its property values. This was an area supported by steel, Angela Hurlock explains, and when that industry declined in the late 1970s, South Chicago never recovered. But even when Hurlock recites her region’s depressed history, there are traces of glee in her voice. She sees opportunity in a boarded-up building or an empty lot. She still believes in the dream.
Hurlock, 40, is the executive director of Claretian Associates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building community (and sustainable housing) in South Chicago. The housing comes in a variety of flavors—low-rent apartments and senior facilities—and many of its 130 units include more than a dozen green features, but Claretian’s greenest gems are the ten single-family homes it has built since Hurlock came aboard in 2004. Solar panels pepper roofs, vinyl windows stop energy leaks, and recycled carpets come from plastic bottles. “We wanted to build homes that were friendly to the body—and not just a safe place to live, but an affordable one,” Hurlock says.
Building affordable housing with federal and private aid is Claretian’s strength, but low-income families still struggle to make the purchase. Solar panels might cut utility bills down the road, but first you need to get on that road. Claretian connects families with government subsidies (up to $60,000 in some cases) and layers those funds with money from groups such as ComEd and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Even with all the help, however, the economic downturn has taken a big bite out of demand: 27 lots remain vacant. That doesn’t deter Hurlock, an Oak Park native and an architect, who owns one of the green houses with her husband. For her, Claretian is about rebuilding lives. “What we have here is not just for the selective few,” she says. “We service 2,500 families a year, and people look to us to help them, not just with housing but with everything.”
The reach of Claretian’s other services—from finding summer jobs for at-risk teens to helping residents start block clubs to coaching people about money management—focuses on the direct needs of the community. “I think one of the greatest things we’ve done is help families to dream beyond their six blocks,” Hurlock says. And a supportive neighborhood, one worth returning to and investing in, helps make those American dreams a reality.
Photograph by Ryan Robinson; Assistant: Mark Doddato Styling: Courtney Rust Hair and Makeup: Ashley Condron and Carley Martin/Artists by Timothy Priano