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New houses, local jobs make for better neighborhoods

“When you gonna come work for me?” Melvin Bailey shouts at a young man walking down Homan Avenue on the city’s West Side. “We got orientation coming up next week.”

The young man’s pants are sagging (a look Bailey says is unacceptable in the working world but which he seems willing to overlook for the time being). He’s been talking with this particular young man for months and is now ready to give him a shot at a job.

A girl pushing a stroller walks next to the young man.

“I didn’t know you had a shortie,” says Bailey. All the more reason, he says, to come work for him.

This isn’t the first time he’s recruited from off the street.

In 2002 Bailey started the Community Male Empowerment Project (CMEP) as a way to put ex-offenders and hard-to-reach youth to work. “I pull up on the corner and talk to anybody,” he says.

Recently he’s been rehabbing houses as part of Chicago’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) and recruiting local residents to do the work. CMEP is typical of the housing developers, appraisers, asset managers, demolition contractors, real estate professionals, specifications writers and title companies that, through Mercy Portfolio Services (the nonprofit which manages NSP) and the City of Chicago, are engaged in acquiring and renovating hundreds of foreclosed, vacant properties throughout the city. In addition to providing high quality, affordable housing and stabilizing neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis, the program is putting many local people to work.

A few minutes before the encounter on Homan, Bailey was standing on the back porch of a house he’s working on near the Garfield Park Conservatory. He pointed at the porch next door and shook his head. He was going to hire a young man who lived there, he says, but “I didn’t get to him in time. He was killed.”

It’s that kind of tragedy - wasted talent - that compels Bailey to keep going.

When Bailey, 43, was growing up on the West Side, he wasn’t all that different from the young people he sees on street corners today. He got into some trouble, he says, though he doesn’t say exactly what kind. He messed up and realized he had to right things.

Now, he says, “I wanna be a role model - to show that you can make a change but that it comes with a lot of hard work.”

He hopes the CMEP can prove that people are willing to work, if given a chance.

“Nothing’s easy in life,” Bailey says. That’s why his young recruits start off through a transitional program called Touch N Go Cleaning, picking up garbage from major streets and vacant lots in the neighborhood. They're paid $8 an hour until they can show that they’re ready to be employed at a higher level.

Once they’ve proven themselves, Bailey pairs them up with a tradesman, and they begin an informal apprenticeship. He’s got roofers, plumbers, painters, and carpenters on his payroll. All of them, he says, love showing other people how to do what they do.

He knows quality is important when it comes to rehabbing houses. So he makes sure his employees recognize that with every beam and nail, “Our name is on the line.”

Bailey’s got his share of challenges, too. Construction projects come with budgets, he says, and that means, “You can only hire so many people.”

All the paperwork has to be right as well. He’s received help from the 

University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Clinic, and law firms like Mayer Brown and McDermott Will & Emery. The paperwork can be a hassle, but if you want to be successful, he says, it’s just something you’ve got to do.

And it’s hard because he doesn’t always get a break. His job occupies his time seven days a week. “It doesn’t stop when you’re trying to change things.”

But, he says, “Wherever there are young men and women who need opportunities I’ll be there.”

Posted in Housing