In 2017, Near West Side Partners (NWSP) opened paths to homeownership by providing incentives through down payment assistance and rental assistance for those looking to buy a home. Since then, these grants have also aimed to address ongoing maintenance issues to prevent long-term damage. The Live Work Play (LWP) home repair program matches dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000, any exterior repair done on homes in the Near West Side.

LWP grants help current residents to stay in their neighborhood and, at the same time, motivate potential residents to explore the Near West Side. These two goals work to prove that neighborhood stability depends on keeping people in their homes and preventing displacement. By maintaining the look and feel of the residential corridor, perceptions of the neighborhood are more positive and rates of community engagement increase.

Maggie Blaha has lived in Martin Drive since 1964 and worked to keep her home, which she and her husband bought in 1972, well maintained over the years. Originally built in 1921, the home is an important historical fixture in the neighborhood. Since the introduction of LWP grants, Maggie has gotten a new garage roof, replaced glass block windows, and repaired a retaining wall in her driveway. She said that staying connected with her neighbors helped motivate her and others to work on their homes.

Above left: Maggie Blaha’s new garage roof
Above right: Maggie Blaha’s recently repaired retaining wall between her front yard and driveway

Valerie Langston, a Merrill Park resident of 25 years and a lifelong volunteer, was happy to find out that the program was available to property owners of all incomes. After looking into it for about 18 months, she was able to install a paved pathway between the street and her home.

Above: Valerie Langston’s side porch entrance before (left) and after (right) installing a paved pathway.

In Martin Drive, Maggie’s neighbors have experienced a domino effect since LWP grants became well-known. She explained that she used to make copies of the grant application and deliver them to anyone whose home looked like it needed repair.

“We were telling everybody, ‘Do you know there’s $1,000 out there if you just fix your front steps?’” Maggie said. In addition to inspiring home repair, these conversations also inspired residents to help others in their neighborhood.

“Of course, if you can get some money back, that’s the whole big thing of it,” Valerie said. “It’s a blessing to be able to get a few bucks back.”
Valerie also talked about how assistance from LWP programs has helped residents address violations from the Department of Neighborhood Services after the pandemic left many without a job.

“Anybody would want to be able to afford to keep their home fixed up, especially if they have violations,” She said.

LWP grants have shifted the conversation on homeownership and helped people work more to preserve their homes. “We want [residents] to keep their houses to make them better,” Maggie said.

With these grants, NWSP aims to keep residents in their homes longer and help neighborhoods retain their vitality. It also helps to protect residents from absentee or neglectful landlords. When Maggie Blaha noticed how some properties were left unkept, she went to the city and told them, “If there’s one house on the block that’s in bad shape, that affects the whole block.”

NWSP also hopes that as homes are maintained, businesses will be motivated to establish themselves in the neighborhood.

“If we had three projects within two blocks and people saw that, people could see the Near West Side in action. They would get more interest. We could be very proud that we have this organization in our neighborhood,” Valerie said.

Valerie sees the work she’s done, both on her home and as a volunteer, as bringing homeowners and renters closer together.

“It takes a lot of different people to create a community, and to want the community to grow, thrive, and be of service to most of the members,” she said.

“People like to do things that help others,” Valerie added. Encouraging communication helps to build a better program for all residents.

When asked what her neighbors thought of the LWP grants, Valerie explained that she’s told at least five about the program after receiving compliments on her new walkway.

“If anyone wants a paver, they can ask me and I’ll give them a card. They might not be able to get in on the program, but at least I can give them a decent price and they can trust the paver after seeing my work done,” she added.

Above: A closer look at Valerie Langston’s paved walkway between her yard and sidewalk

Maggie is also known as the “Cookie Lady” to new residents that move in and are welcomed with a warm batch of cookies. She loves Martin Drive and is always encouraging others to connect with the neighborhood association on Facebook, Twitter, and their website. If you’re interested in learning more, talk to your neighbors or visit our page on LWP grants here.

“There’s only one way to get to know your neighbors,” Maggie said, “and that’s if you ring the doorbell.”

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