From downtown to Hyde Park Academy, Woodlawn residents, organizers and city officials met, protested and debated the new affordable housing plan for the neighborhood on Tuesday evening.
Outside the Thompson Center and City Hall, demonstrators with the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition blocked traffic, continuing their fight for a CBA ahead of the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center. And later that evening in Hyde Park, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) hosted a community meeting with officials from the Chicago Department of Housing to discuss the draft Woodlawn housing plan the city released Feb. 25.
Downtown, about 50 protesters met at the corner of Randolph and Clark streets at 5 p.m., congregating in front of “Monument with Standing Beast,” the white fiberglass sculpture outside the Thompson Center. Ebonee Green, a South Shore resident and organizer with the CBA Coalition, said a brief prayer.
“Father God, we thank you for bringing us here. We know that you are the God for people who have their backs against the wall, Lord,” she said. “We ask that you open the hearts and the minds of all the aldermen, the mayor, everyone who's involved, to open their hearts and minds, Lord, and let them hear that we are here on the side of the poor, Lord.”
Green and the rest of the speakers argued that, though the Woodlawn housing ordinance is a first step, it does not adequately protect the neighborhood’s lowest-income residents from possibly being displaced.
“In response to our organizing, the mayor introduced a Woodlawn affordable housing ordinance. Everybody celebrate that — we did that!” said Green, to cheers from the crowd. “It comes close but it does not come close enough. We are in the business of keeping our community the way it is and better. We do not want to be put out when things get nice. We want it to be great for us and the new people.”
David Zegeye, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and an organizer with UChicago Against Displacement, spoke about his family’s use of Section 8 vouchers growing up. He noted that while it provided consistent housing for him during his childhood, it could quickly become unreliable, leaving those who rely on it insecure.
“Even now, my family, with our Section 8 lease going up, we end up having to leave,” he said. “Because of these rising rents from the Obama Center, we do not want the same thing to happen to Woodlawn residents.”
A member of the CBA Coalition shared information from a February meeting of the city's Woodlawn Housing Task Force with the Herald. The city's presentation at that meeting included a scenario that could create 200 new affordable units through developing the 208 parcels of land the city owns in the neighborhood. Of those affordable units, 117 are expected to come through selling units to homeowners — under the city's plan, those units must be affordable up to 120% of AMI. (The CBA Coalition therefore does not count them as affordable.)
The city predicts that another 83 affordable units will be created through the development of projects with 6 or more rental housing units. The CBA Coalition expects that half of those units will be affordable up to 50% AMI, because of the city's set-asides for different levels of affordability. Therefore, the Coalition thinks that only a little over 40 of the units created through developing city-owned land will be affordable by the Coalition's definition.
Around 5:15 p.m., protesters in fluorescent safety vests stepped into the crosswalk and blocked off traffic traveling south on Clark, a one-way street. The vast majority of the other demonstrators joined them, chanting “What do we want? A CBA! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
After 15 minutes, police officers on bicycles redirected traffic northward. Police also blocked off Randolph a block to the east, where it intersects with Dearborn Street. No arrests were made.
The protest ended around 6 p.m. Green and Zegeye, along with a few other people, took the bus to Hyde Park Academy, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., where Hairston was hosting a public meeting about the housing ordinance.
Hairston began the meeting with a warning. “I know there are a lot of people out there that are trying to muddy the water and cause confusion and scare people, and that is not the intent at all,” she said. “We are about lifting up communities, we are about lifting up the community of Woodlawn.”
“There are some people that are busy telling folks that this meeting tonight was canceled in an effort to get people not to attend. There are all kinds of sources outside trying to undo what we are trying to do to bring our communities together, to uplift our communities,” she continued.
Rosa Ortiz and Anthony Simpkins, managing deputy commissioners at the Department of Housing, presented on the plan, emphasizing the ordinance’s five goals: protect residents from displacement, create new rental and for-sale housing opportunities, ensure quality housing, promote housing options to support equitable and inclusive income diversity, and support economic development opportunities.
Simpkins said later that the city’s $4.5 million contribution to the plan will come out of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance fund that developers pay into instead of building affordable housing. He also noted that the plan provides for another $5 million in private funding.
Officials were careful to emphasize that they had listened to residents when drafting the plan. When Simpkins and Ortiz explained that the ordinance includes a right of first refusal — which gives tenants the right to buy a property their landlord plans to sell — Hairston raised her hand in the front row and asked, “Who proposed that?”
Ortiz explained that the idea was a demand from the CBA Coalition.
“I think it's important for them to know, other than someone standing here and talking and saying this happened, saying this is how we got this to be one of the actual points,” she said, after interrupting again a minute later with the same question. “It was something that either the alderman or one of the groups that you see had asked for, and (the city) incorporated it into the ordinance.”
One of the city’s proposals is a repair program for homeowners who have lived in the neighborhood for 10 years or more. However, the provision does not apply to condo owners, an exception some attendees worried about.
“There's a lot of people in Woodlawn that own condos, and a lot of those folks that have lived in those buildings have taken on a disproportionate amount of cost to repair those buildings because of the last 10 years,” said Michael Madero, a Woodlawn homeowner. “Is there a possibility that this particular loan program could apply to those homeowners?” Ortiz said that the city would consider the recommendation.
Zegeye and Green sat through much of the meeting dissatisfied, whispering their objections to each other. At one point, Simpkins and Ortiz put up a chart showing affordable rents and mortgages at different levels of Area Median Income (AMI), a metric that measures total household income in the Chicago metropolitan area. Later, Zegeye asked why the city considers people in Woodlawn whose incomes are at 100% and 120% of AMI — making about $71,000 and $86,000 for a household of two, respectively — to be moderate income.
“The corresponding affordable rent and mortgages for those two income levels match that of downtown,” he said. “If those levels are high enough to match downtown new construction levels, why is that considered moderate for Woodlawn?”
This cuts to the core of the CBA Coalition’s disagreement with the mayor’s new plan: it spreads out resources inequitably because it does not prioritize those at the lowest end of the income distribution, but gives significant assistance to those making more money. By the Coalition’s count, Zegeye told the Herald after the meeting, the draft plan would only create around 40 new units of affordable housing from city-owned land for those making up to 50 percent of AMI — about $36,000 for a household of two.
One reason for the disagreement is that the city and the Coalition are using different definitions of affordability. Part of the city’s plan says that any development over 15 rental units on city-owned land must set aside a fifth of those units for households whose incomes are up to 80 percent of Area Median Income ($57,000 for a household of two). But, Zegeye said, members of the Coalition think affordability metrics should be capped at the fifty percent mark.
(The city has other ways it might expand affordable housing options. At the Woodlawn Community Summit this past weekend, Department of Housing commissioner Marisa Novara, who was also at Hairston’s meeting, said that the city would work to recruit more landlords for both the Section 8 and Low-Income Housing Trust Fund programs. The ordinance notes that the trust fund has “committed to making … subsidies available to assist” in Woodlawn.)
Back at the meeting, Simpkins responded to Zegeye by noting that there are plenty of apartments in Hyde Park, South Shore, and the North Side renting at higher rates than that affordable ones listed in the city’s table. “In today’s market, this is in fact moderate-income,” he said. “People at 30 to 50 percent, or even 60 percent AMI, are considered low-income based on this scale. People at 100 to 120 percent are considered moderate-income.”
Simpkins also argued that the city’s plan, fashioned in response to conversations with community members, needs to include all income levels.
“This is not a zero-sum game. We're not trying to say we lock some people out ... and leave the low-income people in their home. We're also not trying to say that low-income people are not displaced and have opportunities but that means we can't help people with moderate income,” he said. “This is about an inclusive community that has resources available for everybody along the income spectrum.”
Freelancer Marc Monaghan contributed reporting.