Hyde Park tenants and activists gathered on Saturday afternoon for a town hall, sharing their housing experiences and discussing how to confront the possibility that the current economic crisis may cause a mass wave of evictions later this year.
Outside the Nichols Park fieldhouse, organizers from Mac Tenants United, which organized the event, meticulously taped down star-shaped red balloons at socially distanced intervals. (Most people, however, opted to sit in the shade of the trees at the edge of the square.) Faye Porter, an organizer with the group, emceed, kicking off proceedings by encouraging everyone to dance to Pharrell Williams's "Happy."
About 25 people were in attendance at any given time, but organizers made sure to draw attention to the absence of two peple: Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Eli Ungar, head of the real estate company that owns Mac Properties.
"We have reached out to her office repeatedly as we sought support in our struggle with our callous, corporate landlord, but Ms. Hairston has consistently given us the cold shoulder,” said Zak Witus, president of Mac Tenants United, in a statement. “We don't have any illusions at this point: Ald. Hairston cares more about the interests of the corporate landlord lobby than us ordinary renters. It's clear who she thinks her real constituents are, and it's not us."
John Hieronymus, an organizer with Tenants United Hyde Park/Woodlawn, taped signs saying “Reserved for Eli Ungar” and “Reserved for Leslie Hairston” to the backs of two empty folding chairs.
“I’m sorry, Eli Ungar was gifted with enough money in this world. He’s a billionaire. He’s not gonna starve if he isn’t getting paid rent on the apartments for next year,” said Hieronymus. “We’re fighting to cancel rent, fighting to stop evictions and stop rent increases, and we want to fundamentally stop gentrification, which leads to the social cleansing of Black, brown, working-class people out of this neighborhood.”
State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) was in attendance, while Toni Preckwinkle sent a representative: Angela Maclin, who works for the Cook County Department of Planning and Development. Peters, Maclin, Hieronymus and other activists participated in a panel discussion near the end of the town hall.
One of them was Helena Duncan, a Hyde Park resident who works with the Lift the Ban Coalition. Duncan spent most of last week downtown at the occupation of Daley Plaza, where a number of groups, including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, set up an encampment to protest the expiring eviction moratorium and call on Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) to cancel rent and mortgage payments. Seven people were arrested over the course of the week.
Last Thursday, Pritzker announced he would extend the eviction moratorium until Sept. 22. A bill from State Rep. Delia Ramirez that Peters supported, which would cancel rent and mortgage payments, failed to make it out of committee in July. The state, county, and city all have rental relief programs that residents can apply for, though activists say it still isn’t enough.
“I don’t think you can say housing is a human right and it also has to be a commodity. I don’t think those two things can exist at the same time. That’s my utopian vision. In the meantime, there’s fighting for policies like rent control and just cause for eviction,” said Duncan.
Peters pointed to the massive increase in unemployment over the past few months — in some parts of Chicago, according to a New York Times investigation, the unemployment rate is over 30%. “That’s going to impact everyone when it comes to having a roof over their head, their ability to get groceries,” he said. “And what we risk seeing is a massive amount of austerity and massive amount of disinvestment.”
Tenants United is also part of creating a new group that will organize direct actions against evictions — Hieronymus said that illegal lockouts have been taking place over the past few months in Chicago, particularly to those renting from smaller landlords.
He also warned that the eventual expiration of Pritzker’s eviction moratorium could have serious consequences if the economic crisis caused by the pandemic doesn’t let up. Both he and Duncan made reference to a 1931 anti-eviction protest in Washington Park, where police shot and killed Black people trying to move an evicted person’s furniture back into their house after it had been dumped on the sidewalk.
“I guess a message I would like to pass on to our electeds is that...if these evictions start happening in an official capacity, instead of the illegal evictions that we're seeing happening in places like Pilsen or South Shore, if we see that kick into high gear, I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “And I think that it's really important for the folks who are making these decisions, or who are taking word back to folks who are making decisions, that this could get really crazy.”
But residents and former residents of Hyde Park also spoke about the longer trajectory of the neighborhood, particularly their worries that it was already becoming unaffordable for many people before the pandemic hit.
Duncan pointed to statistics from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning showing that the percentage of neighborhood residents who are black decreased from 37.7% to 26.8% between 2000 and 2018. (In absolute terms, that comes out to a net loss of about 1,200 people.)
Activists connected that to rental increases. Faye Porter, a member of Mac Tenants United, said that her rent has gone up by $600 a month over her last decade of living in a Mac-owned building. Ximena Mora, who now lives in Little Village, said they and a lot of others had to move out of the neighborhood because their rent was too high.
“And there are many people who don’t have the luxury of coming back and sharing their story,” they said. “There are a lot of people that I reached out to, but unfortunately, currently they’re facing eviction, they’re facing a health crisis. And they can’t make it down to Hyde Park because, as we know, without a car it’s kind of hard to make it down here.”
Peters, as well as others, pointed to one problem that frequently comes up when discussing gentrification — how to improve a neighborhood’s amenities without displacing people who want to stay.
“The task before us is to give people all the things that we see in great neighborhoods while also making sure that people can stay there,” Peters said. “Oftentimes, what we see solely as the justification is the idea of all these great luxuries. But hidden behind that is the fact that we’re going to push people out that don’t fit the norm, or don’t help sell the neighborhood.”
Part of fighting for those policies, both Peters and the activists pointed out, is figuring out how to acquire more political power, whether through elected officials or otherwise.
“We have to get organized and build power in our neighborhoods, starting in our buildings,” said Hieronymus. “From there, you build the power to do things where you can act collectively and directly confront the people who are actually changing the way our neighborhoods are.”
“We need to be organized, and we need to be ready to take care of each other,” he continued. “Ultimately, working-class folks have each other — that’s what we’ve got. And if we’re not taking care of each other, then we’re just going to be swept away.”