The fight for affordability: Woodlawn’s demands for the Mayor’s housing plan

By Sidnee King
Medill Reports

“I am writing to personally and directly share with you the City’s proposals to take advantage of this historic moment, reflect what we heard and partner with you to transform Woodlawn into an even stronger, safer, and more equitable place to call home.”

These are the words of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, penned in a Feb. 25 letter addressed to the entire Woodlawn community. 

Earlier this year, the Department of Housing released a draft ordinance addressing affordable housing protection in the neighborhood after months of stakeholder meetings and public outcry from Woodlawn residents. According to DOH Commissioner Marisa Novara, the aims of the ordinance are to “protect existing residents from displacement and to promote housing options to support equitable and inclusive income diversity in Woodlawn.” 

While it has been nearly a month since the draft was released, there are no announced next steps on the horizon. During a community meeting at Hyde Park High School, where DOH officials discussed the draft plan with residents, Deputy Commissioner Anthony Simpkins said that the plan will not move to a City Council vote until “it has the support of the community.”

Now that the city has presented its anticipated plan, responses from the community are pouring in. And the proposed ordinance has been received with exuberant applause, deep criticism and a range of attitudes falling in between. Hear the responses to DOH’s proposed ordinance and the mayor’s address as you navigate the map below. 

Woodlawn and the Obama Presidential Center

Chicago’s economic landscape has long been described as a Tale of Two Cities, the story of a downtown overflowing with investment contrasted by South and West side neighborhoods whose residents have longed for the same financial attention. Today, Woodlawn, a historic community just a 20-minute drive from the Loop, finds itself in the throes of its own tale. But, as long-awaited investment opportunities arise, city officials and residents are divided on how to write Woodlawn’s way forward. 

In 2016, former President Barack Obama’s foundation announced Jackson Park as the selected site to break ground on his $500 million Obama Presidential Center. The stretch of land located at 6401 S. Stony Island Ave. extends into three South Side neighborhoods: Hyde Park, South Shore, and Woodlawn. Of these three, Woodlawn has the highest number of residents vulnerable to potential displacement — a result of the influx of residential and commercial investment expected to roll in with  the center. That’s when calls for a housing plan to protect residents from displacement began to take shape, resulting in the current proposed city ordinance that many in Woodlawn argue falls short. Community organizers and local officials are fighting for more protection in an alternative proposed housing plan. 

While development industry professionals are excited about the prospect of new opportunities in the neighborhood, the fear of rent hikes and raised property taxes has overwhelmed many of the individuals who have stayed in Woodlawn through decades of disinvestment. 

Following the Obama Foundation’s announcement, grassroots groups came together as the CBA (Community Benefits Agreement) Coalition and partnered with the University of Illinois at  Chicago in a year-long survey of the community. The results of the survey revealed that 9,900 households in Woodlawn are vulnerable to displacement with the investments and development expected to result from the presidential center.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward), a community organizer at the time, worked with South Side Together Organizing for Power and other groups to draft an ordinance presenting what they think could be solutions to this problem. Suggestions made in the proposal include a set aside of 30% of city-owned vacant land for affordable housing in Woodlawn, a community trust to assist long-term residents in-home repairs, and protections for residents within 2 miles of Jackson Park.

The coalition shared their proposed ordinance with home-owners, renters, business owners and students in Woodlawn. After garnering enough community suppor and, after Taylor’s election to as alderman in May 2019, the coalition presented their proposal to City Council last June. 

This isn’t the first time a plan for financial investment in Woodlawn has been presented to the city. There have been 15 other plans drafted by past aldermen and other community groups that have failed to make their way through a City Council vote. 

Photo at top: CBA Coalition protesters shut down traffic outside of the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. (Reporter Name/MEDILL)