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Duo turns problem buildings into source of opportunities for tenants

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CHICAGO — Boarded up, structurally unsound and littered with garbage, an abandoned house can be more than just an eyesore; it's often a hub for gangs and drugs as well.

Just days from demolition, Adam Meredith and Allison Richman decided to make an abandoned structure on north Sawyer Avenue their latest project on Chicago’s West Side. There's a school nearby, and residents had been complaining about the building for years.

"The school was really bothering the city about trying to get rid of this building because we had people, you know, in here using drugs, vandalizing the building and it was just a mess," Meredith said.

Today, security cameras have been installed and work is moving fast to turn the building into new apartments. It’s a labor of love for the duo, who are taking on dilapidated buildings in Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park to restore not only the structures, but hopefully the streets and communities as well.

"A lot of the blocks we’ve purchased on because the building had been derelict and neglected by the former owner; that just changes the dynamic of the block and it makes it run down, and bad things start happening," Richman said.

He was a general contractor looking to get into income properties, and she has a background in corporate real estate. Friends and colleagues in the industry, they teamed up to take on a new path as landlords.

The pair now own and manage several buildings in areas that have struggled with violence, but rehabbing the structures is only part of the equation. Partnering with police and community organizations, they ensure tenants who rent in their buildings have access to assistance with employment, education, and childcare among other things.

As the building sizes and the number of tenants increased, so did the hope of turning around entire streets and neighborhoods with just a little extra sweat equity. A building in East Garfield Park holds apartments on the second floor, but space on the ground floor is used as an outreach center by Martin Coffer, director of the violence prevention initiative for Breakthrough.

"Almost a year ago this location, Homan and Walnut, was one of the most violent locations," Coffer said.

Meredith and Richman donated the space to Breakthrough in an effort to help bring additional support to the community. Breakthrough's Wilonda Cannon said it's a unique approach that makes it an "all-around better place for the current residents."

"There are not a lot of people who say, 'I see opportunity here, not just in the land, but in the people, in places like Breakthrough," Cannon said.

Most of Meredith and Richman's properties are at full occupancy. By the end of summer, new tenants will be moving in to the newly-rehabbed building on Sawyer Avenue, only eight months after gangs and drugs were pushed out.

"We enjoy seeing a block and a corner go from seeing dealers there every day all day and night to a safe quiet corner," Meredith said.

Meredith and Richman said they plan to host a fundraiser for Breakthrough in the fall, on top of regular cookouts and events they host at their buildings.

In the long term, they hope set up their own charity and streetscaping plan to deal with the physical aspect of the streets in their neighborhoods, and run parallel to the work organizations like Breakthrough are doing.

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