Woodlawn stakeholders say city’s affordable housing plan isn’t affordable for all

By Sidnee King
Medill Reports

Woodlawn community organizers and local officials called for assurances during a Ward Night meeting Thursday that a new city housing ordinance will protect Woodlawn families living at the poverty line from displacement.

On January 7, the Chicago Committee on Housing and Real Estate passed an ordinance that authorized the city to purchase seven vacant properties in Woodlawn previously owned by neighborhood titan Rev. Leon Finney.
The properties were acquired by one of the city’s development partners, Communities Inc., for just over $3 million when Finney’s company Woodlawn Community Development Corporation auctioned the lots off in bankruptcy last year.

According to a spokesperson from the Department of Housing and Development, the properties will be entered into the Troubled Buildings Initiative — which reclaims abandoned or dilapidated buildings — and set aside for affordable housing in the area.

And while stakeholders like Devondrick Jeffers, a housing organizer for Southside Together Organizing for Power, agree that this could be a good first step in protecting housing affordability in Woodlawn, concerns remain that the city’s overall plans don’t take into account the needs of Woodlawn’s most vulnerable households.

“We have to make sure when they’re talking about affordability, they’re realistic about the folks who are already in the community,” Jeffers said.

Nearly half of Woodlawn’s households earn less than $25,000 per year, which is below the $26,250 federal poverty line for a family of four. And ramped up commercial and residential real estate development — sparked by the announcement of groundbreaking plans for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park — has motivated worries that new building projects will generate a wave of displacement for low-income renters.

Woodlawn Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) echoed Jeffers’s combination of concern and cautious optimism toward the property purchase. “We’re not going to be able to stop gentrification,” Taylor said at the meeting. “But we need to protect the class of citizens that live in Woodlawn.”

For this reason, in July, Taylor and a coalition of neighborhood organizers proposed a community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance with the Obama Foundation to the city council. The proposed contract would require the foundation to meet specific community demands, including setting aside vacant city-owned land for affordable housing and creating a fund for tax-relief and rental assistance for working families.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not endorsed the CBA agreement, she has said that the city will be active in protecting vulnerable residents in the area. The city has responded to pressure from the Woodlawn community Thursday, announcing a proposed package of new affordable housing ordinances in the area.

However, Jeffers said much of what the city is planning to do is already outlined in the CBA ordinance and on a larger scale.

“We’re definitely excited to see that there’s some alignment in what the city is proposing, but there are some major elements that need to be addressed,” he said.

Among these elements is a set-aside of 30% of city-owned land within 2 miles of Jackson Park for affordable housing. The city’s plan would only include land within a half-mile of the project.

Renee Celestine, a Woodlawn resident and STOP organizer, said that she is disappointed the city is choosing to sit on the CBA agreement many residents have already lent their support to. “The work has been done for them. What they’re doing now is a delaying tactic,” Celestine said.

Taylor said that the conversation around what to do with the vacant lots and what true affordability in Woodlawn could look like will continue later this month at an Open House on Jan. 30 at Hyde Park Academy High School.

“I’ll be interested to hear what the community will say,” Taylor said.

Photo at top: Residents and organizers gathered in Woodlawn to discuss strategies to prevent displacement. (Sidnee King/MEDILL)