Developers, city officials and community organizers shared their thoughts with residents about housing affordability and economic development in the community area at the 11th Annual Woodlawn Community Summit on March 7.
The preliminaries to the summit, held at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, included a series of breathing exercises led by Beth Albrecht, the founder of Blue Lotus Yoga, 816 E. 63rd St, as well as an environmental awareness performance of the “Captain Planet” theme song by a group of children with Blacks in Green, a Woodlawn nonprofit.
A number of politicians attended, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) and State Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th). Many of them spoke, some at the insistence of Preckwinkle.
“When President Preckwinkle says speak, you get up and speak,” Taylor said. “We got some stuff to work out, and it’s not gonna be easy. Because normally what has happened in our community is they pit us against each other, but that’s no longer what is going to happen.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D) also made an appearance, wrapping up the general session with a speech.
“The future of this community depends on the people living in this community to reach a community consensus through conversation,” he said. “There won't be unanimous agreement — never is. I live in a world where there (are) differences all the time. But it's up to you to decide on the future in your community."
Durbin lamented the historically high levels of Lake Michigan, saying that he was calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to do a “resiliency study.”
The centerpiece of the summit was a mid-morning panel between city and community representatives over the question of housing affordability and development in the neighborhood. Participants included Department of Housing commissioner Marisa Novara, Department of Planning and Development commissioner Maurice Cox, developer Lamell McMorris, Blacks in Green founder Naomi Davis and Cook County Land Bank Authority executive director Rob Rose.
Also on the panel was Byron Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, who has gradually built Network of Woodlawn, the community organization he chairs, into one of the neighborhood’s most powerful voices. During the discussion, he spoke about the need to think about the neighborhood itself as an “institution” — one limb of a “four-legged stool” that also includes the city, the U. of C., and the Obama Presidential Center.
“What we tried to do in Woodlawn was to build an institution so that it begins to take a look at all different types of resources, plans and buildings,” he said. “The city has an initiative. The institution then responds to the city and says, ‘Here's what we're looking to do.’”
Novara expressed optimism that the ongoing development of Woodlawn can take place without forcing any residents out of the neighborhood.
“An opportunity that I think is really particular to Woodlawn is that there is an opportunity to grow without displacing anyone who lives in Woodlawn now,” she said, citing the high percentage of long-term affordable housing and city-owned vacant land as support. “We have an unusual ability to contain and control what happens there, so everyone who lives in Woodlawn now can remain in Woodlawn.”
(Novara also quoted the French philosopher Simone Weil — “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul” — on the need for community.)
Though Novara’s hopefulness seemed to be shared by many of the other panelists, much of the discussion, particularly during the question-and-answer session with the audience, focused on perceived inequities in development or city policy.
Lamell McMorris, founder of the developer Greenline Realty, said that the reason his company focuses on rehabilitating vacant homes in West Woodlawn is that it’s the section of the neighborhood that’s been the most neglected.
“No disrespect to the other parts of Woodlawn, but as far as I'm concerned the areas between 63rd and 71st, King Drive and Cottage, have been and historically are the most challenging areas. We have set out to try to develop as much vacant land, rehab as many homes as we can, and be a part of catalyzing that part of Woodlawn,” he said. “I believe if we can rebuild and develop the west side of Woodlawn everything west going east will benefit.”
Attendee David Zegeye, a doctoral student at the U. of C. and a member of campus group UChicago Against Displacement, said that he worried the Department of Housing’s new Woodlawn housing plan would not provide for the lowest-income residents. “60 percent (Area Median Income) is not going to be high enough,” he said, echoing a point made by the Community Benefits Agreement coalition that the city’s plan is geared toward those making $60,000 to $70,000 a year. “How do we provide for people at 30 to 50 percent of AMI?”
In her response, Novara echoed Zegeye, distinguishing between different income levels and noting that low-income people are not “a monolithic population.” At the very lowest incomes, it becomes more expensive to provide affordable housing.
“What makes rent affordable at that level takes a lot more money, a lot more subsidy to get it to a point where it’s affordable. That’s our challenge, and it’s one I take really, really seriously,” she said. Novara said that one strategy is to recruit more landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers for low-income tenants.
She also reiterated a point she had made earlier in the panel, when she said that her office met with Ald. Taylor last week to strategize around bringing more landlords into the city’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes renters earning less than 30 percent of area median income. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2020 budget increased the number of households serviced by the Fund, from 2,700 households to 3,200. (Zegeye told the Herald after the panel that, while he appreciated Novara’s response, he didn’t feel her answer had been specific enough.)
Another resident, Anthony Cole, asked about a worry repeatedly brought up over the course of the summit that a spate of expensive new construction meant the middle-class in Woodlawn might soon be priced out of the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of new housing for the affluent and wealthy,” Cole said. “Can the people up here on the panel, can you get focused on how do you make housing affordable for the middle class?”
Brazier agreed, and argued that those most vulnerable to displacement are actually market-rate renters, who would be most affected by an increase in rents. “Right now we're probably in a cycle where rents are somewhere between 800 and 1200 a month, and many developers are saying they need somewhere between 1500 and 1800 a month,” he said. “We really have to take a look at this in a long-term kind of situation, where you say, ‘What do I want to build, and how do I get there?’”
Cox, the planning and development commissioner, suggested that in the long run it would be best to gradually increase density and expand the range of housing options available to people. He touted one proposal that would help achieve that goal: the re-legalization of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) — add-on units, often coach houses or attic and basement apartments, to single-family properties.
“It’s an incremental way to gently insert density into established neighborhoods, while allowing those who own those houses to stay in their house and generate additional income,” he said. “It supports the creation of affordable housing, but also (enables us) to house and host more people of varying incomes in neighborhoods like Woodlawn.”
Later on, Cox continued this line of argument, making the case that an expansion of housing options would allow Woodlawn residents to live in different types of properties as their needs changed without having to move out of the neighborhood. He said that he himself had moved from a single-family home to a high-rise after his children went to college and he needed to down-size.
“Someone should be able to buy something on the 19th floor if that's how they want to live …. We have to create these variety of choices so that people can live in this area in the multiple ways you can live in Chicago,” he said. “We're gonna have to densify some areas, we're gonna have to go low in other areas — where is that appropriate? That is what I think we are going to embark on when we start planning with Woodlawn.”