Being a Neighborhood Cheerleader

How to Be An Active Member of the Communities You Serve

From lakefront oases to bustling corridors to quiet, tree-lined streets, all of Chicago’s 77 communities offer pockets of unique personalities. As REALTORS®, you are often in the epicenter of these neighborhoods, helping making properties into homes and creating communities through property ownership. Your ability to shape these communities and make an impact for the better is powerful.

We spoke with two Chicago REALTORS® who are great examples of the ways REALTORS® can be “cheerleaders” for their neighborhoods beyond selling and buying homes. Get to know them and how they got involved locally—hopefully you’ll get inspired.

The North Side Hipster, Alex Wolking

Alex Wolking, Keller Williams ONEChicago—and a self-proclaimed hipster—always had an interest in things and places that aren’t considered popular. It all started in the Quad Cities, where Wolking began his real estate career before making his way to Chicago.

The Quad Cities have their own neighborhood nicknamed the “Gold Coast,” where Wolking frequently helped clients buy and sell homes. Today, the Quad Cities Gold Coast is a popular neighborhood, but it hasn’t always been that way. This neighborhood was the victim of redlining in the 1960s and 70s, and just 10 years ago, many REALTORS® avoided working there. Many of the historical homes in this area were run down. Wolking, however, saw an opportunity.

“What makes communities really rich is investments from within,” he said. He banded together with the neighborhood’s residents to advocate for and invest in the neighborhood’s amenities and homes.

Wolking views his job as a REALTOR® as responsible for selling more than a home—he’s selling a community. And they did just that. Through their efforts, homebuyer interest in the Gold Coast increased, creating the thriving, high-in-demand neighborhood today.

Once he moved to Chicago, “I felt the best use of my time was to give back to my neighborhoods in the same way,” Wolking said. As a new resident who knew very few people in the city, he got involved with the Buena Park Neighbors, the block club for the community he lived in—also the largest block club in Chicago. Little did he know that he would not only find belonging there, but this decision would also lead to an avalanche of other opportunities.

Through the Buena Park Neighbors, Wolking heard that the 46th Zoning Ward Committee needed someone with real estate knowledge to sit on the committee. From there, his interest in historical homes led to him getting involved in the Uptown Chicago Commission and the Uptown Historic Society.

Wolking began leading walking tours through the Uptown Historic Society, and during one of his tours, he saw a row of six single family homes along the Hutchinson Street Historic District with for sale signs in their yards. More time went by, but the homes continued to sit on market.

He made a phone call to Landmarks Illinois – a non-profit that preserves and protects historic sites throughout the state, where he’s now part of their Board of Directors. He cold called the homes’ listing agents, introduced himself and proposed the idea of hosting a private walking tour of the homes; they said yes!

Wolking’s plan turned out to be wildly more successful than he could have anticipated, with a large turnout for the tour and following party hosted in a neighbor’s backyard that included the Alderperson and representatives from a variety of neighborhood groups.

Now, Wolking sits on the Uptown Chamber of Commerce Real Estate and Development Partners Committee, where developers must pitch their development before it moves forward. He’s known as the person to talk to when someone has a development idea for the community, and he gets a front row seat to help shape his neighborhood through real estate.

“Because I’m so deeply entrenched in the neighborhood, I have exclusive insight,” Wolking said. He’s also viewed by his REALTOR® peers as an Uptown expert and frequently gets referred to people
looking to buy in the area. This involvement not only helped his business, “I’ve made so many friends out of all of this,” he said.

This highly involved, busy schedule doesn’t stop Wolking from taking the time out of his schedule for the things he enjoys doing. “It is my lead generation. It’s in tandem with what I do anyways, so it doesn’t feel like extra work,” he said. “If I had a choice between two hours of lead gen every morning or go to a board meeting to talk about a new development, I’m going to talk about the development.”

The Charitable Volunteer, Ri Prasad

Ri Prasad, Option Realty Group, understands that part of her duty as a REALTOR® is giving back and finding ways to help others.

Prasad works heavily with REJUVeNation, a community owned development cooperative that works in Chatham and other south side communities to keep residents in their homes, support local businesses and improve the safety, security and well-being of these communities.

With a variety of vacant properties in these areas, this cooperative allows residents to buy shares and gives them voting rights to determine what happens with these properties, all with the goal of keeping businesses and money in communities. Prasad helped the organization develop a five-year plan for growth.

“Selling and buying real estate is amazing. But we want to provide security and hope,” Prasad said, which is something she’s trying to do with her work through REJUVeNATION.

She is also on the Board of Directors for the co-op and is regarded as the real estate consultant of the group. If the co-op needs an advisor for leasing and purchasing, Prasad is the person they go to. She also helps do review work for them. These groups know that she’s a trusted advisor they can lean on for information, advice and help when needed.

Prasad also sits on the Board of Directors for the Chicago Tools Library, which provides equitable access to tools, equipment and renovation information to all Chicagoans. Located in Garfield Park, they operate similar to a regular library. With a yearly membership fee, Chicagoans across the entire city get access to a lending program with thousands of hand tools, power tools and even
cooking equipment.

Prasad said that the Chicago Tools Library, and her work with it, is all about homing in on a community – specifically how we as real estate professionals empower it and how we can make a difference.

How Can You Get More Involved in Your Neighborhoods?

  1. Be Active in Your Chamber of Commerce
    Chambers of commerce promote and protect the interests of the business community in your area. They have a strong neighborhood network and help to coordinate efforts with the local aldermen and the City.
  2. Support Community Development Corporations
    Community Development Corporations are common in neighborhoods where there is a focus on economic development. They are equipped to tackle issues like affordable housing development, job training, education and other social programs.
  3. Learn About the Cook County Land Bank’s Programs
    The Cook County Land Bank plays a transformative role in building strong communities. The Land Bank acquires, holds and transfers interest in real property throughout Cook County to promote redevelopment and reuse of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or tax-delinquent properties.

Check out our Community Tools & Resources to Better Serve Your Clients article for more details!