Two Chicago nonprofit organizations receive prestigious award

By Chris Loeber

Groups from across the globe recently earned accolades for their efforts to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, two of which are Chicago-based.

Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and the Chicago Investment Corporation, two nonprofit organizations working with city residents and property owners in low- and moderate-income areas of the city to preserve affordable housing, received the 2012 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions on Feb. 16.

The MacArthur Foundation gives loans and donations to support groups that work for a wide variety of causes, such as human rights and community development.

The Award for Creative and Effective Institutions is given to nonprofit organizations that share the same interests and values as the foundation, according to Jack Markowski, president of CIC. Fifteen organizations from six different countries received the award this year.

“In MacArthur’s estimation, here are two organizations that devote a lot of their resources to housing issues that are doing very effective and important work in this market of great need,” said Hoy McConnell, executive director at BPI. “The issue is a really pressing one in this region right now that is affecting thousands of families and their futures.”

BPI, a nonprofit organization that operates a foreclosure mediation program to help residents in court, received a grant for $750,000, according to McConnell.

BPI will use the funds to strengthen several of its programs and to establish a staff position for the investigation of concentrated urban poverty and the challenges it presents to its housing initiatives.

Specifically, BPI hopes to reinforce its work with the Chicago Housing Authority called the “Plan for Transformation.” BPI has converted more than 25,000 units of public housing either into mixed-income communities or into rehabilitated living units since its start in 2000, according to McConnell.

“We work with the CHA to approach the very difficult task of relocating residents,” he said. “And to make sure that the services are provided so we’re not just talking about transforming housing, but we’re talking about transforming lives.”

CIC, a nonprofit mortgage lending company, was awarded $2 million for its “Troubled Buildings Initiative” in conjunction with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department, Markowski said.

The program targets the most blighted buildings in a neighborhood and either convinces the landlord to improve the property or buys the building to sell to a responsible owner.

“Since the initiative began, we have bought and sold 186 buildings with almost 3,000 units in them that have been transferred, rehabbed and preserved for affordable rental housing,” Markowski said.

However, not everyone agrees that BPI and CIC are the best organizations for the job.

Tom Tresser, a civic engagement instructor at the Illinois Institute of Art, said there may be connections among the two organizations, the MacArthur Foundation and the city that gave BPI and CIC an unfair advantage over other nonprofit organizations.

Both Markowski and Julia Stasch, vice president of U.S. Programs at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are former commissioners of the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, Tresser said.

“I wish the foundations would be less cautious and really take some chances on the people who are really fighting for economic justice and who need help,” he said. “I would rather see them give a large award to the anti-eviction campaign. They’re really interrogating basic questions of fairness and equity and how this city runs and who owns what.”