Anthony Barrett looks around his third floor apartment at 901 S. Independence Ave., thinking about what his block was like just three years ago.
"Drug infested. Gangbangers. Murder. Rat infested. Roaches," he says. "It was terrible. It wasn't a safe place for someone to live in."
Since Jan. 17, 2006, he says, there hasn't been a single murder in the four apartment buildings that surround him, a fact he credits to the building's new owner, Duane Ehresman.
But Barrett isn't the only one singing Ehresman's praises.
The developer was presented with the Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award as part of the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards yesterday for buildings he rehabbed as part of the Lawndale Restoration project.
"My hope is that this is a stable enough place where people can be healthier themselves and raise healthier children and see a generational thing happen," says Ehresman, who had worked on affordable rental housing on the West Side of Chicago for 30 years.
Ehresman was thinking of retiring back in 2005 when he got a call from John Pritschner, former president of the Community Investment Corp., a Chicago nonprofit rehab lender.
"He said, 'Duane, I know you're trying to slow down, but this neighborhood could really use your expertise,'" Ehresman says. "It's the biggest one I've ever done."
In 2004, significant structural problems throughout the buildings caused HUD to foreclose the properties. It was the second largest string of foreclosures in the department's history. The buildings were then sold to the city, and then to the Community Investment Corp., which found local developers to handle the transformation.
In two weeks, all of Ehresman's five buildings will be completed, providing new homes for 150 families.
Not only will the buildings provide a source of quality housing, Ehresman also says he also did his best to find jobs for local residents, hiring people from the community to work on the buildings.
"I'm a firm believer in whatever neighborhood you're in, the workforce ought to represent that neighborhood," says Ehresman. "Until my daughter joined us seven or eight years ago, I was the only white person in my company."
Ehresman got into the housing business as a practical way to express his faith. After going to seminary, he was troubled by racial divisions in the church and moved to the Austin area to try to make a difference in the neighborhood. Housing was where he saw the greatest need.
"We all need at least one place in our life that's stable," Ehresman says. "There was such a need for housing. If housing is stable, people at least have a place from where they can move, grow, get stronger and raise healthy families."
Community leaders say Ehresman's commitment to his residents is unique - more of a life mission than just a business.
"I call people like Duane an urban saint," says Jack Bernhard, vice president of community development at JPMorgan Chase, which invests in CIC. "He's an urban Mother Teresa."
Martin Berg, spokesperson for CIC, agrees. He says Ehresman is always doing things for the kids in his buildings or putting in extra time on weekends to make things better for the families that live there.
"He has always been somebody who is very concerned with tenants and quality management," says Berg. "He does all that, and he keeps his rents reasonable."
For his tenants, many of the changes are practical, but they also have larger implications for their lives.
"He gave us ceiling fans. He gave us hardwood floors, countertops. We didn't have none of that before him," says Barrett. "I treasure my apartment. It's like God's gift to me."
As of December 2008, 47 percent of the Lawndale Restoration project was complete. While all the units will eventually be rehabbed, Barrett says most places haven't changed the way his block has.
"Before he took over the building, we was wondering what person we might get," he says. "I just thank God we got him."
Ehresman received his award for his work in Lawndale yesterday afternoon at the annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards. He says he's mostly proud of the changes he's seen on his corner of Lawndale, but the award doesn't hurt.
"I don't do this for awards," Ehresman says. "But after 30 years, it's nice that somebody noticed."
Duane Ehresman talks about his hopes for the future of his buildings as he walks through a unit being rehabbed.
Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.