In typical Chicago style, division is brewing on the Northwest side of town—and it’s over affordable housing. Add a few sprinkles of race and class and you’ve got a full-blown fight indicative to what many communities around the city have endured or will endure in the future.
Here’s the deal.
A proposal for a 100-unit mixed-income, affordable housing development has been met with mixed emotions. The development is slated to house 80 units that will be listed at below market rate and reserve up to 30 of those units for Chicago Housing Authority voucher-holders, according to a report by DNAinfo Chicago. The site is located at 5150 N. Northwest Highway, a former FSP food distribution center.
In addition to the proposed seven-story housing development, a five-story storage warehouse facility will be built in close proximity to the housing building. The City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards passed the request of LSC Development, LLC, the construction company responsible for both projects, to reclassify the zoning for the construction site from a B1-1 Neighborhood Shopping District to a B3-5 Community Shopping District and finally to a Planned Development at its most recent meeting on May 22.
According to the official summary of the committee meeting, the storage facility’s dimension will be approximately 75 feet high and will measure 133,000 gross square feet with seven additional outdoor parking spaces. The remaining area will be dedicated to the residential housing building.
Prior to the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Standards ruling on the reclassification of 5150 N. Northwest Highway, a melting pot of community stakeholders, affordable housing advocates, curious spectators, elected officials, and more filled the lobby area of City Hall’s second floor with a cacophony of voices anxiously awaiting a decision that would affect some of their lives forever.
The crowd of mostly middle-aged adults hailed from predominantly White Jefferson Park and places beyond, which for some of the individuals present was part of their concern. How can people who do not live in Jefferson Park or who do not own homes in Jefferson Park understand Jefferson Park or its people? Why should outside influencers’ input ultimately change not just the outward appearance but the spirit of the community?
Opposition to the proposed affordable housing structure is as fierce as it is multifaceted. Specifically, opponents to the project cite issues such as school overcrowding, a seven-story building does not “fit the character of the neighborhood,” increased density, increased crime, and more. Opponents, most of whom are current Jefferson Park residents and homeowners, have voiced their opinions in public forums both in town hall meetings as well as online. One such piece from the opposition comes in the form of a
Change.org petition to the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association which calls for developers to adhere to the Gladstone Park Master Plan which, among several items, would limit new developments to just four-stories. Already, the petition has garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
Trisha Kannon, who lived within Jefferson Park for multiple years, said there appears to be a targeted public relations campaign to take the focus off the issues. She said she’s in favor of a four-story building.
“It’s a quality of life issue, for sure, and it’s disrespectful to real race issues and to the neighbors to cloud the issue this way,” said Kannon. “I’m disappointed about the prejudice angle because [while] I do think racism exists, of course, that’s not the case in this particular conversation.”
Meanwhile, cautious hope for an affordable housing victory was on the horizon and nearly within reach.
Ald. John Arena (45th Ward) spoke in support of the affordable housing development at a press conference hosted by Neighbors for Affordable Housing in Jefferson Park, Access Living, and The Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing. Arena was joined by 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar; 22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Muñoz; 17th Ward Ald. David Moore; and 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack and several community organizers.
Following the press conference, Arena said he was “proud” of the community’s support of the project and thanked them for persevering in the face of opposition. He explained that his constituents who are not in favor of the project should consider the dearth of housing options with elevator access and the number of empty lots and derelict buildings that don’t contribute to the tax base. He added that it’s an “economic reality” that underutilized land should be developed as a means to generate revenue for local schools. He cited an estimate from the Metropolitan Planning Council that calculated the economic impact of the project would be $3 million a year.
“In just buying power, these folks are going to come into our community and support our restaurants, dentists and doctors; all of whom have said we are losing patients, we need young vibrant families to come in to support our local businesses,” said Arena.
Arena attempted to appeal to the hearts and minds of the individuals opposed to the project with special consideration to those who called for an increased business presence within the ward.
“Well, the reality of the world is to get something you have to move something,” said Arena. “You have to deliver something and we’re going to deliver housing, we’re going to add critical retail space, we’re going to give [incoming residents] community life and access to schools and education that’s unmatched in the City of Chicago.”
One of the underlying aspects that emerged during the discussion for new affordable housing in Jefferson Park is the negative perception of the assumed prospective residents. Advocates for the project suspect racism may play a role in the opposition’s viewpoint.
Ben Goldsmith, Tenant Organizer for Chicago Housing Initiative, contends that statements loaded with criticism that include terms like “low income,” “Section 8”, and any inference to an increase in crime may be coded racist rhetoric. He said there shouldn’t be any compromising with bigotry and that a seven-story building is already a compromise. He added opponents to the project know if the building is only four-stories tall the development will no longer suit its intended purpose.
“We know what people mean when they come to a community meeting and shout, ‘no Section 8’,” said Goldsmith. “We also know what they mean when they say housing project. It’s very clear that it’s the who and not the what, there’s no confusion. When things get heated, people forget to dog whistle and they’re pretty straightforward about who they are talking about.”
Goldsmith said according to his organization’s research, housing plans similar to the one proposed typically do not make a negative impact on neighborhoods they’re joining. Also, he said the housing gives the residents who are able to move into the completed space a fantastic opportunity.
Arena said he does not know what is in someone’s heart but he will continue to speak the truth about what he thinks is best for the ward. He said he’s heard questionable remarks while at the town hall meetings.
“I know what I heard in that meeting was not about any of the rational issues that they’re trying to bring up now about height and density, it was about others, it was about ‘our neighborhood can’t accept this’,” said Arena. “Well, we have to accept new people are moving into our neighborhood all the time, they’re moving into our single family homes and we need housing that is available to all.
Jefferson Park is a changing community relative to decades past. According to a January 2013 report by Social IMPACT Research Center based on an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, 83.9 percent, or 21,892 of the neighborhood’s 26,099 residents, were White. Meanwhile, African Americans made up 1.6 percent (405) of the all residents; Asians consisted of 9.3 percent (2,432); and Hispanics were the largest number of minorities with 20.4 percent of the population or 5,332. The data was taken from the 2006-2011 American community survey.
Jefferson Park is among several northwest side Chicago communities to remain by-and-large predominantly White. According to a 2013 report by the Huffington Post, from 1920-2000, Jefferson Park remained over 90 percent White until 2000. The only communities that were still listed as 90 percent White were Edison Park, Norwood Park and Mount Greenwood in the southwest area of Chicago.
Marva Williams, a Jefferson Park resident and homeowner with her husband since September 2002, said she’s seen “a few” more African American and Latino families move into the community since her family’s arrival, however, Jefferson Park is still a predominantly White community. She called the fight in favor of affordable housing in Jefferson Park “great.”
“I think affordable housing needs to be integrated throughout the City of Chicago,”
said Williams. “I think the community has so many assets we can share to lower income people, and also the development has market rate housing so there will be people at the median income as well as above.”
Williams’ statement that the Jefferson Park community has much to offer low income communities can be traced to the fact that the community itself is well above the poverty rate. Jefferson Park’s poverty rate was one the third lowest of any community in Chicago from 2007-2011, according to the Social IMPACT Research Center. In fact, it was one of only six communities in the city to have a poverty rate in the single digits. Jefferson Park was able to maintain its low poverty rate as other communities faltered. In 2000, 11 communities were in the single digits in terms of poverty rate.
However, affordable housing within the Jefferson Park neighborhood is practically non-existent. A quick search on Zillow.com revealed rental prices for apartments in Jefferson Park ranged from $800-$2,000+ per month for one to three bedroom apartments.
But, with the recent green light from the zoning committee, that could be changing as soon as the affordable housing project gets underway—even amidst opposition.