One Man’s Effort to Save the Economy
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There is a man from Carpentersville, Illinois, who embodies the character America needs right now if it is to recover from its economic depression. Sadly, he is one of a dying breed—and that has big implications for America.
Tom Roeser is fighting the battle of his life. Tom is the president and co-owner of Otto Engineering, the biggest employer in Carpentersville. Tom is battling to prevent his hometown from turning into a post-industrial slum. It is a tough, frustrating fight. He was handicapped by local laws, uncooperative county and state officials, and aid organizations unwilling to commit to battle.
But Carpentersville was Tom’s town. That meant something to him. He wasn’t about to let it die like Detroit.
Tom’s crusade began in 2005 after a condominium near his factory was hit by a wave of foreclosures. Soon the whole neighborhood was blighted with crime, graffiti, gang activity and vandalism. Property values plunged as unkempt, overgrown, dilapidated properties spread.
“It really was neglected,” said Tom. “I went to the town, the county; I went to Habitat for Humanity; I told them that we needed to do something about this neighborhood. I couldn’t get help from anybody” (cnnMoney, April 2).
So Tom took action himself—despite all the bureaucratic roadblocks, mounds of codes, and over-burdensome regulations that seemed to be stacked against him. He began by buying up the run-down foreclosed condos and fixing them himself. It was a lonely fight against long odds.
Then in 2008, the economic crisis struck and an even bigger flood of foreclosures and abandoned homes hit the market. Carpentersville was one of the hardest-hit cities in the country, with official unemployment spiking to 12.5 percent—and real unemployment closer to 20 percent.
But Tom didn’t quit. Between 2008 and 2009, Tom was the only person to buy property in the 5,000-home neighborhood.
Instead, he expanded his vision to other parts of Carpentersville—and started rehabilitating more homes. Blighted properties destroy property values and lead to other people letting their property run down. And that can lead to migration and other sorts of social problems, he noted.
“We can’t just fix one,” he said. “We have to fix them all.”
It was either an act of faith, or desperation, but where he led, maybe others would follow.
And follow they did. “It’s been quite a catalyst,” according to Village President Ed Ritter. “Every neighborhood in which he has bought and rehabbed homes seems to prosper. Other homeowners see what he has done and improve their own homes.”
“It is the pebble in the pond. If he does 100 houses, then there are five houses around every one of them that starts improving their property,” he said.
So far Tom has purchased around 150 single-family homes and 70 condos. Some he has had to tear down to the studs to rebuild, others he has completely demolished before putting up a new structure.
“We want the home no one else will buy. If someone else will buy it and fix it, it probably is nice,” says Tom. “I want a house that is in horrible condition so we can fix the neighborhood.”
Tom evidently takes pride in his work too. When he fixes or builds a house, he puts up a sign saying Otto Engineering is rehabilitating the home to help retain the value of the neighborhood. He stakes the reputation of his company on the quality of the work being done. He wants people to know that the house they buy or rent from him is built with the same level of quality as the switches and high-precision electrical controls his company is known for.
And he wants residents to understand that they are not alone in their fight. “We want the homeowners to know that there is a future for the homeowner in the town, so that they don’t abandon their home, and so that they can continue to invest,” he says.
Tom obviously isn’t a fan of the “its the government’s job to fix things” socialist philosophy, but his story also dramatically differs from today’s capitalistic America.
Tom didn’t buy the houses for a quick flip to sell to investors from Australia or China. He wasn’t looking to build a rental empire for the profits. He bought those crumbling homes with the purpose of rebuilding his community.
When he sells a remodeled house, he prices it to cover his costs—and no more. He just wants out what he has put in, he says. To veterans, he cuts $10,000 from the listing prices. With the properties he rents, he leases them for around $200 per month below market value.
But Tom’s action isn’t just altruism. There is one important stipulation attached to his transactions. Whoever buys or rents one of his properties must agree to take care of and upkeep the property, especially the exterior that has such a big effect on property values and on how other people maintain their property. He has dozens of people lining up, so he can pick and choose who he wants to put in his houses.
Everyone benefits: realtors, mortgage brokers, property appraisers, framers, roofers, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, local businesses, buyers, homeowners, renters, city tax collections—who all get work and get paid—and yes, Tom Roeser too.
By helping rebuild Carpentersville, not only does Tom deter crime, but he helps insure the existence of a safe, stable and affordable community for his workforce and their families. Additionally, according to Tom, he also ensures that his customers, like Motorola, John Deere and the U.S. military, don’t get turned off by the urban decay when they come to visit.
It really is a win-win situation.
And it is a potential win-win situation that more community leaders and individuals like Tom need to aspire to if America is ever to prosper again.
Sadly, that won’t happen.
As Charles Murray, author of the book Coming Apart, notes: Back in the 1950s and ’60s, America’s elite—the Tom Roesers of society—were much more integrated with everyday society. The doctors, the lawyers, the scientists, the politicians, the PhDs, the ceos, lived in or near the very same communities that their employees and fellow workers did.
Murray gives the example of the Maytag Corporation, which was headquartered in Newton, Iowa. Originally, the owner, ceo and other executive officers lived in Newton, along with their employees. They got paid a bit better, and had slightly larger houses, maybe a swimming pool, but despite their “status” they weren’t really that different from everyone else. They were part of the local clubs, they attended community functions, their children went to the same schools as everyone else’s.
When problems hit their communities, America’s “elite” had a vested interest in finding a solution.
But over the years, corporate America has transformed. America’s elite have segregated themselves into isolated populations divorced from the reality faced by the rest of America.
In Maytag’s case, after the death of F.L. Maytag ii, it wasn’t long before the next generation of executives moved out of Newton and into more cosmopolitan regional centers. Soon thereafter, all the executives lived in far-away big cities.
Then, Maytag was sold, and the new owners shut down the Newton factory and moved it to Mexico.
In so much of America, the links between employee and employer are broken. Today, millions of American workers never see, never meet, never once interact with the executives they are working for. And as far as executives are concerned, their employees are merely a cost item on a balance sheet.
When company towns decay, corporate executives and America’s elite do little—not because they are greedy and callous, and not just because they don’t have the strong emotional and community attachments of previous generations who lived in the communities—but because they often aren’t there at all to notice what is happening in the first place.
Wall Street is divorced from Main Street. Even when a corporate executive may want to help, his first duty is often to his shareholders. Maximizing shareholder profit doesn’t necessarily align with employee welfare.
Despite the fact that America’s elite are wealthier than ever, there just aren’t as many Toms with the ability, the awareness and the desire to help reverse the decay.
That is not a good thing because more and more communities are going the way of Detroit.
I, too, live in a neighborhood that needs people to stand up and take responsibility for their families, community and property. Many people may not have the money backing them that Tom did, but it doesn’t need to take a lot of money to make an impact either.
What it takes is people willing to put in the work to mow the grass, and pull some weeds, to trim some trees and plant some flowers, to splash some paint and some cheer. What it takes are people willing to serve their neighbors, as well as themselves. What it takes are people willing to step out and lead by example—to be catalysts for their neighborhoods and catalysts for their nations.
Where are America’s leaders? Where are the rest of America’s ceo and big business owners? America needs leaders, not mere managers who are only interested in their jobs and concentrating on short-term profits. America needs people willing to not only talk the talk of helping the middle class, but walk the walk.
It’s the time- and energy-consuming walk of putting others ahead of self-interest that is important.
Tom is not quitting. He has found rebuilding Carpentersville so rewarding that he is expanding. He is taking the battle to neighboring East Dundee with a plan to help regenerate storefronts and other commercial buildings.
America needs more fighters like Tom, but the Bible says it won’t find them. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, because of America’s national sins, the strong leaders have been taken away. To understand what that means for the nation, and the incredible hope beyond America’s current decline, read Lamentations: The Point of No Return by Gerald Flurry.