U of C alum anticipates south campus growth, rehabs old apartment buildings for students

Craig Huffman knows about living in Hyde Park. Having grown up on the South Side and received two degrees from the University of Chicago, Huffman unveiled an 18-unit luxury residence in Woodlawn last Sunday.

By Rachel Cromidas

Craig Huffman (M.A. ’94, M.B.A. ’03) knows about living in Woodlawn. Having grown up on the South Side and received two degrees from the University of Chicago, Huffman co-founded Ascendance Partners, LLC, a real estate company, and unveiled Ascendance’s 18-unit luxury residence in Woodlawn last Sunday.Ascendance completely gutted and renovated the three-story building, which sits on the southwest corner of East 61st Street and South Ellis Avenue. Huffman likens the real estate business decision to a stock-trader who buys when the stock is undervalued.“We think there’s profit in submarkets, primarily on the South Side of Chicago. This is a neighborhood we have identified as an investment interest despite the financial downturn,” Huffman said. Likewise, Ascendance has focused on buying and selling properties in Washington Park, Bronzeville, and Hyde Park.According to Huffman, growing up on the South Side gave him an optimistic outlook on the potential for a neighborhood like Woodlawn, one of Chicago’s lowest-income communities, to improve its economic lot. “I grew up watching neighborhoods transition from good to bad, and neighborhoods that were bad transition to better,” Huffman said. “Woodlawn looks a hell of a lot more stable now than it was 20 years ago.”Huffman worked as the director of City Year, a nonprofit involved in urban youth education, before matriculating to the Booth School. He said Ascendance, which he co-founded with John Puntillo in 2006, was born out of a desire to connect his experience in community outreach to what he learned about finance in business school.Huffman said that when Ascendance purchased the Woodlawn property two years ago, it had a number of building violations and few tenants. “We worked with an affordable housing nonprofit, to help some of the tenants find new housing—a few didn’t take us up on that offer, and we had to evict them,” he said.The apartment building is comprised of six two-bedroom units, at $1,000 and 12 one-bedroom units at, $1,300, according to Jeremiah Deac, Ascendance’s general contractor. The units feature hardwood floors, brick walls, and granite countertops. Each has separate heating and air-conditioning. Several of the apartments have terraces that overlook an empty lot, which Deac said is slated to become a parking lot. He also noted that plans were in the works for a basement coffee shop. Third-year Udodi Okoh said she would consider the Woodlawn property in her hunt for a new apartment. “It looks like it has enough amenities and stuff that students are looking for, and it’s gated,” said Okoh, who currently lives on East 57th Street and South Dorchester Avenue. SSA student Jennifer Baker is less positive about the apartment’s location, however.“When I told my friends in the Gold Coast that I was moving to Hyde Park, they were like, ‘You’re crazy!’” Baker said.Baker said the news of assaults on East 59th Street and East 61st Street is enough to keep her living north of the Midway. The building is located at the site of graduate student Amadou Cisse’s death last fall. “We closed a month after the killing,” Huffman said. “Our real estate firm wants to go into areas that others might be afraid of.”Despite students’ concerns about violence in the neighborhood, Huffman is optimistic.“Our real estate side is focused on undervalued assets,” he said. “We saw that the new undergraduate dorm was being built…and we feel that over the next five to ten years the market is going to appreciate quite a bit, especially since a huge number of students will exist on that 61st Street block.”