Chicago announces $10 million in funding to help small business owners in underserved neighborhoods

Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund will help finance commercial and cultural small business projects in the city’s West, Southwest and South Sides


“To truly reform our criminal justice system,” writes NYU sociology professor Patrick Sharkey, “we need to move away from the mind-set that punishment is the answer to urban violence. Indeed, there is now sufficient evidence to support an entirely new model for countering violence — one driven by investment.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development echoes this sentiment, explaining that, “to a large extent, changes in violent crime are linked to broader social progress and economic gains.”

Under the guidance of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago is taking a page out of this community-focused playbook with the implementation of a newly revamped Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. As contributor Kenny Sokan explains, this program has helped small business owners in struggling neighborhoods across the city access the capital they need to build lasting community institutions and resources.

And this strategy seems to be paying off — the city’s homicide rate has fallen for three years in a row.

“Make no mistake,” said Lightfoot, “our work will not end until Chicago is the safest big city in the country. By investing in our South and West Side neighborhoods and addressing the root causes of gun violence, we can build on this progress in 2020 and continue making meaningful gains in public safety in communities throughout the city.”

The city of Chicago has announced $10 million in grants through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) to finance commercial and cultural small business projects to revitalize Chicago’s West, Southwest and South Sides.

The NOF was created in 2016 via the city’s revised zoning code and leverages revenue generated from development in Chicago’s downtown area. It is part of a larger initiative to revitalize 10 commercial corridors across historically underserved Chicago neighborhoods called INVEST South/West. This project is channeling over $750 million over the next three years into these areas.

At a press conference last month, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, alongside Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, announced major reforms made to the overall structure of the NOF program, particularly its funds disbursement process and the assistance provided to grant applicants during the application process.

These changes were implemented in an effort to make the NOF program more inclusive of business owners in underserved communities, who lacked the upfront capital needed to launch or restore their businesses before receiving funding. Previously, grant recipients received their funds retroactively, as reimbursements for costs after the completion of a project.

I have heard from small business all over the city for two plus years that the NOF wasn’t really meaningful for them. It was a matching grant and when you don’t have the funds, you can’t match,” said Lightfoot.

“So we want to actually change this, and we are changing it, to make sure we actually put money in the hands of small businesses…recipients will receive much more intensive support from the city at every stage in the process, and we want to get you to ‘yes’.”

The NOF will now provide grant applicants with access to:

  • lending coaches, design professionals and construction advisors to assist with business plans and structural matters;
  • program concierges to help them navigate the application and development process as a whole;
  • larger grant amounts, with recipients being provided funds earlier as needed and throughout various stages of the construction process.

Additional funding is also available to business owners who live in the neighborhoods they are hoping to serve in the form of Build Community Wealth bonuses, which, for the first time, will enable projects to be 100% funded by the NOF.

“I believe the program’s enhancements are vital to the mayor’s promise to turn around decades of disinvestment that impaired the city’s equitable growth across all neighborhoods. We are so looking forward to the proposals that we’ll see during this year’s two application rounds,” said Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox.

NOF awards will be given to projects that focus on the new construction or rehabilitation of publicly accessible and commercial places, such as grocery stores, retail establishments, restaurants and cultural institutions. Any establishment that does not identify its primary use as commercial, such as residential buildings, manufacturing and industrial plants and churches, are ineligible for funding.

NOF grants can be used to cover costs for the following areas:

  • Land acquisition and assembly
  • Building acquisition, demolition and environmental remediation
  • Security measures
  • Roofing, façade repair and mechanical system repairs
  • Architectural and engineering fees
  • Financing fees (related to securing a loan or other capital)
  • Minor site improvements, such as fencing or planters, when part of an eligible project
  • Other soft costs associated with eligible hard costs

NOF grants cannot be used for costs associated with the following:

  • Residential dwelling units or the residential portion of a mixed-use building
  • Minor repairs and improvements, such as painting
  • Repairs or improvements that are required to bring a building into compliance with the City of Chicago’s building code
  • Support programs or services
  • Operating expenses
  • Travel expenses or any lodging/hotel expenses

NOF applications will be prioritized based on the following factors:

  • Catalytic impact: Projects should provide services or goods currently lacking in an area, and applicant proposals should explain how their projects will build stronger communities or commercial corridors.
  • Project readiness: Applicants should have site control of the project property or be engaged in the process of obtaining site control. Selected properties should not have significant issues, such as mechanic liens, court orders or past due property taxes.
  • Project financial feasibility: The specific use of grant funds should be clearly laid out in project proposals, as well as other additional sources of funding, or strategies for how applicants will obtain the funding they will be contributing to the project.
  • Construction implementation: Applicants should demonstrate a clear and ready path to implementation.

Moving forward, there will be two rounds of applications for NOF awards — the first beginning in January and the second in July. The last day to submit applications for the first round for grant amounts of up to $250,000 is February 29. Apply here.

Learn more about the NOF program.

Kenny Sokan is a freelance writer at Gov1. She is a strong believer in the power of information and creative expression, which guides her in all of the work that she does. Kenny is a graduate of Northeastern University with a BA in journalism.