Bronzeville home in jeopardy because of debt; owner seeks outside donations
August 2, 2019

Photos by Christopher Valentino
Lynda Thompson is struggling to hold on to her family’s Bronzeville home. Her late parents once advocated for affordable housing for their neighbors.

By Sheila Elliott

Lynda Thompson’s home brims with the type of history that matters to us all, highlighted by a dining room wall that serves a backdrop for a large studio portrait of her parents, Clara and Arthur Brown.

Thompson, seated at the granite countertop in her kitchen, recalled warm times visiting with her parents in the living room. She remembered the stories about Jim Rice, her grandfather, who purchased the house at 549 E. 46th St., in Bronzeville, decades ago. A smile crossed her face recalling the day she moved into its garden apartment. She names in quick succession the local elementary and high schools where her children attended classes.

Thompson, 58, has roots in Bronzeville that are deep and lasting.

The 2016 deaths of her parents shook the entire family and ushered Thompson into the entirely new role of family “anchor.”

In the years since, a new vocabulary has crept into her life, words such as escrow and lien. A trip to her mailbox often means finding collection notices from a mortgage company or contractor. Past due bills began to accumulate, and eventually an even more sobering fact became apparent.

Despite an exhaustive search in their personal papers, it seemed that neither Clara nor Arthur Brown had prepared a will, a fact that left the title of the property where Thompson lived in doubt. She hired an attorney, became enmeshed in the intricacies of probate court, and all the while tried to whittle down the debt left for her to sort out.

Her mother “didn’t explain all of this to me,” Thompson said, still praising both parents for their lifetime accomplishments. Her eyes drifted toward a few of the business letters lying on top of her kitchen’s granite counter top. Grasping for words, she said it looked as if the building, which has stood in Bronzeville for about 140 years, is headed to a Cook County scavenger sale because of tax delinquency.

She shook her head, saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Thompson’s struggle to keep pace with and understand property tax statements and debts is a common one.   

45,000 in jeopardy

Cook County Treasurer Mara Pappas has estimated that as many as 45,000 Cook County property owners face consequences from tax delinquent accounts this year, a situation that could mean their houses and property go on the auction block. Pappas said part of the tragedy of that situation stems from the fact that far too many property owners, especially senior citizens, did not avail themselves of all of the property tax breaks to which they were entitled.

Pappas encouraged property owners to visit the Cook County Treasurer’s Office’s website at https://cookcountytreasurer.com/ to learn more about their taxes and potential ways they can reduce their tax debts.

Thompson has hired an attorney to help sort out her family’s financial difficulties, which include other debts along with her tax bills. She said it seemed likely her property was headed for a scavenger sale, noting the sound of new construction has become familiar in Bronzeville, with its large number of vacant lots and prime building sites. She has spotted strangers taking measurements and eyeing the property. The process had cast her entire life into uncertainty, she said.

Thompson’s plight takes on much more poignance because of her family’s admirable achievements.

Her grandfather, Jim Rice, in the first half of the 20th century was able to purchase and pay off the mortgage on the house that, at that time, was a three-flat building.

His daughter, Clara, Thompson’s mother, built on the security her father provided and became active in regional civic movements. Eventually she won a job in Chicago’s City Hall, a position she held for many years, according to Thompson.

Clara’s husband, Arthur Brown, worked for the postal service. Both Clara and Arthur were prominent enough to be featured in a PBS documentary several years ago about Bronzeville and the renaissance it was undergoing. Working together, the couple bought three residential properties along West 89th Street, in the Burnside community. 

Lynda Thompson, shown with Aaron Thompson, is extremely concerned about keeping her home, and family have established a Go Fund Me campaign to help her do so.

Community activists

“Clara and Arthur once fought avidly for affordable housing in the Bronzeville area to secure the lives of their family and their community,” said Thompson’s daughter Asia Johnson.

When Rice died, Thompson’s parents became owners of the East 46th Street house. Even though Thompson could not recall exactly when that move took place, she had vivid recollections of the excitement that came with the renovations and remodeling her parents undertook when they moved there.

Although she still does not have all the facts, Thompson suspects that owning several properties and the cost of keeping them up led to her parents’ unsteady financial circumstances. Neither parent ever shared those problems with her, making the onslaught of bills after their deaths an unexpected burden.

Sadness was written across her face while she spoke. “My happiest moments are my parents being alive,” she said.

Day-to-day realities must be met, she said. Thompson has always worked, first as an overnight truck driver and most recently as a bus driver for a private firm transporting commuters from the downtown Chicago Metra station to offices north of the Loop.

Home duties form another important part of her life. She talked casually about the pot of soup she was making for everyone to share later that day, along with their health concerns. Thompson shares her Bronzeville home with a friend and three children, including a nephew with autism whom she recently adopted. Thompson also takes care of a brother with early onset dementia.

The building remains a touchstone for many other friends and family members who use the address as a way to stay in touch. Even in her casual moments, however, the anxiety of her situation never seems far away. As she walked past her mailbox, she drew back the lid and found yet another past due notice. “See?” she said, her eyes falling downward to the pavement below.

GoFund Me account

Family members have helped Thompson set up a GoFundMe account for anyone who wants to make a contribution to help her pay off the many debts she faces, including property taxes and repair bills from flood damage.

The GoFundMe page says of Thompson, “Currently she works a full time job as a shuttle driver though she must often take time off due to her health issues including diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis.

“This is a woman who has a huge heart as she struggles to take care of her family, often putting her own needs last to keep up with all that is demanded of her.

“Right now she in serious need as her conditions have caused her to fall months behind on her mortgage. While she is doing everything she can to maintain the home that once belonged to her grandfather, then rehabilitated by her mother, Clara, and father, Arthur, it has become difficult in recent months for her to keep up due to increases in other unexpected financial emergencies including fixing flood damages.”

The family indicated that it knows “that many of us are struggling, so any help given is appreciated whether it’s financial or exposure so please share and give what you can if you can. Love and prosperity to you all.”

The page notes that all donations will go to the overdue mortgage balance.

Go to https://www.gofundme.com/help-a-mother-save-her-home?member= for further information.