Neighborhoods: How to identify rising areas and become a community expert

by Jason Porterfield

To say Chicago is a city of neighborhoods is most certainly cliché by now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Each of the official 77 community areas within the city limits has a unique character and defined boundaries. And even outside the city, surrounding suburbs have distinct identifiers, allowing those who want a little more space or a somewhat slower pace of life to also have their own community identities to take pride in.

Since it’s impossible to cover all of Chicagoland’s neighborhoods in a single issue, we’ve identified three up-and-coming spots in the metro area and the real estate professionals who love and represent them.

Agents who aren’t already neighborhood experts will learn from these entrenched brokers how to move into this vaunted sphere. But all real estate professionals need to continually hone their instincts for when a neighborhood is on the verge of becoming a new discovery for buyers, something that requires a good sense of any given community. Studying available data, getting out into the community to develop relationships and becoming active in public forums are methods agents can use to learn about the neighborhoods where they work.

A metropolis inside the city

Looking at a map of the city, Bronzeville is an easy pick for a spot destined for growth. The neighborhood, which is actually within the Douglas and Grand Boulevard communities on the South Side, is close to downtown and offers easy access to the lake, Chicago Transit Authority’s Red and Green lines, city expressways, and Lake Shore Drive.

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The history and cultural significance of the area are also impressive; it hosts a Chicago Landmark area known as the “Black Metropolis,” once a “city within a city” that was home to many prominent African American-owned businesses. The neighborhood was once home to civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, musician Louis Armstrong and writer Gwendolyn Brooks, and its architecture includes classic greystone flats, elaborate Victorian-era buildings, 19th-century mansions and the only row homes Frank Lloyd Wright ever created.

But the reality is that the neighborhood has suffered decades of institutional and investor neglect, a situation that Jennifer Bell, managing broker at Gramercy Group, said has finally been changing over the past few years.

“I suspect that there’s going to be a considerable amount of more development,” Bell said. “And you’re going to see the vacant land decrease considerably in this area. This neighborhood will once again be populated with families. It’ll just be a thriving community again.”

The numbers back her up. The most recent data from Midwest Real Estate Data show that median sales price is up year-over-year around 13 percent for detached single-family homes in Grand Boulevard and Douglas, and that both are hovering around the $480,000 mark. And while Douglas hasn’t seen the same increase in demand, time on the market was down by 37 percent year-over-year in Grand Boulevard, with sellers getting an average of 103.8 percent of their original list price in September.

A spate of new developments, relatively low costs for existing homes and properties, busy thoroughfares like King Drive, and commercial strips all make the neighborhood appealing to a broad range of buyers. Additionally, the city recently started up a Parade of Homes program in the area to encourage more development.

Accordingly, Bell is seeing interest in Bronzeville from a diverse lot of buyers coming from all over the city. “It’s definitely a melting pot,” she said. “I believe that it’ll be the next Ukrainian Village or Bucktown. [But] I should really say Lincoln Park because we’re so close to downtown and we’re not congested.”

And as brokers would want to do to remain relevant in any neighborhood that is undergoing rapid change, Bell works hard to keep up on the latest developments and maintain close ties with builders and new-construction developers working in the area. She noted that while there’s been a lot of new construction east of Martin Luther King Drive (and even further east of the neighborhood’s official boundaries, from Drexel Boulevard to the lake) there is an area between 35th and 51st streets and from Michigan to King Drive where there wasn’t as much new construction within the last two years but she’s expecting to see more.

Bell is especially excited about new-construction projects that speak to the history of the neighborhood as a thriving African American community while offering unique designs, like a building of mostly triplex units going up at 39th Street and King Drive.

In addition to staying in touch with the development community, Bell noted that it’s key to make your face and name well known on the streets of one’s chosen home base. Even though she’s been in the industry for more than two decades, Bell is sure to get the word out on the street that she’s ready to represent the community. “I have these ginormous signs throughout the community with my name in the largest spot that they could have possibly put on the sign,” she said. “Additionally, I prospect and I hold open houses every weekend, so people know my name.”

She’s also taken note of the city’s increasing interest in redeveloping Bronzeville, including the Parade of Homes project. “Whenever you have the city encouraging additional developers and builders to come and develop newer homes and townhomes then other developers that don’t necessarily have contracts with the city are really encouraged to purchase private land to develop as well,” Bell said.

The world in one neighborhood

There isn’t a lot of new construction in the West Ridge neighborhood on the city’s far north side, but Katrina and George de los Reyes of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff anticipate that could change in the near future. The neighborhood, also sometimes referred to as West Rogers Park, is bounded by bustling neighborhoods such as Rogers Park and Edgewater, and is marked by tree-lined residential areas and a solid stock of classic Chicago bungalows.

“The homes are pretty traditional,” George de los Reyes said. “In general, the lots are your standard 25 feet wide. So I don’t think a lot of builders or developers go there to build new construction. You will see rehabs, as people come in and fix the existing structures inside and modernize them.”

One way to tell if a neighborhood is on the verge of a boom is to look at the surrounding data. And while the median sales price for a single-family detached home in West Ridge was only $325,750 in MRED’s most recent data, Lincoln Square to the south clocked in at $630,000 and Rogers Park to the east was at $692,830. Average market time for West Ridge is also down 6.7 percent year-over-year for detached homes and 2.4 percent for attached units.

West Ridge’s affordability is a big plus on Chicago’s North Side, but it’s not the only thing the area has to offer. The neighborhood is among the more ethnically diverse in the city, particularly evident in the many cultures being served by specialty restaurants and stores along Devon Avenue. The housing stock offers many classic bungalows, but also features rows of handsome historic mansions lining Ridge and Lunt avenues.

“We’re proud of the neighborhood,” Katrina de los Reyes said. “We’re proud of who we work with, who we talk to and who we network with. We like that West Ridge is quaint and very special and sought after by people who either grew up there and are coming back or have the guts to go north of Lincoln Square.”

In a changing market, it’s important for agents to learn the inventory in the neighborhood and keep up with it daily so they can keep their clients informed of what’s out there. Katrina de los Reyes encourages agents to become active participants in the life of the neighborhood so that they can learn about it and pass that knowledge on to their clients.

“Go to the open houses,” she said. “Talk to the brokers. Meet the neighbors, go to the local ice cream shop or bakery. Try out the small, independent restaurants and get out there.”

But just as brokers who want to become household names in a neighborhood need to get out in the real world, they also need to have a presence in hyperlocal networks online. The de los Reyeses ensure they have a constant, though unobtrusive presence on NextDoor and neighborhood groups on social media platforms, in addition to networking with other brokers in the area. The de los Reyeses also use these online tools to learn about changes in the neighborhood. “People ask questions on the Facebook pages or on NextDoor,” George de los Reyes said. “We try to answer those questions if they’re real estate-related.”

The heart of the Fox River

Nestled into the Fox River Valley, downtown McHenry is in growth mode. The newly dubbed “Riverwalk District” offers access to boat docks and fishing, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, antique shops and rooftop bars.

Also, in an action that further cemented the area’s appeal to families, voters approved a $44 million-dollar referendum last fall that will renovate McHenry West and turn McHenry East into a “freshman only” school. Currently, students being served by McHenry High School District 156 have to commute between the two buildings, so the plan will result in efficiencies for students.

But the renovations will also serve the larger community. A massive science, technology and industry center to be added to McHenry West will serve up classes and other resources for residents who aren’t high school students as well. And because the district was set to pay off its current bonds, homeowners will actually pay less toward the district than they had been before under this new referendum.

“We have a lot of first-time buyers and young couples with kids looking to get into good school districts,” said Dawn Bremer of Keller Williams North Shore West in downtown McHenry. “We have a lot of people who are downsizing coming from the surrounding areas where the prices could be a little higher. It’s more affordable for them to get a good range of homes.”

Other developments likely to draw buyers include an Ignite Medical Resorts skilled nursing facility and a planned expansion by Jessup Manufacturing. Bremer noted that when businesses invest in an area, that can have a major impact on infrastructure for residents as well. As “Jessup’s expanding their facility, they’re adding to and expanding the water main there. … That will help people get off the wells and septic systems they have over there,” she said. She credited McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, a McHenry West grad who started his first business at the age of 19, for prioritizing economic development since taking office in 2017. “The mayor is just instrumental in business growth, in residential growth and in building a sense of community.”

The market appears to be heating up accordingly. MRED data shows that the median home sales price in September was $185,216, which is 10.4 percent higher than it was at this time last year. Bremer said that approximately 70 permits for new single-family home construction projects have been pulled in the last 12 months.

And while the city council for Naperville to the south of the area recently voted to prohibit sales of recreational marijuana in their suburb, officials in McHenry are working on ways to double down on changes to statewide laws and regulations regarding cannabis. Several municipalities in McHenry County have approved recreational cannabis dispensaries, though local governments are still considering locations, and construction of a medicinal cannabis dispensary located off of Route 31 in McHenry has already been approved. Bremer predicted that the burgeoning marijuana industry is going to have a big impact on the community. “I think it’s going to affect the housing market for sure,” she said.

Bremer said it’s important for agents to be involved in the community so they can find out what’s happening in their neighborhoods. And she walks the walk: Bremer is the commissioner of economic development for the far northwest suburb, a position that gives her insights into coming changes. She’s in a position to be among the first to learn about new developments and amenities that may attract buyers. She is also active in the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce and volunteers with several local schools and organizations.

“I have my hands in a lot, but I’ll tell you, I have access to the heartbeat of McHenry,” Bremer said. “I know what’s going on, and not just in McHenry but in McHenry County. I play here. I work here. I live here.”

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