Why Transportation Advocates Should Get Behind the Affordable Housing Movement

We need to help make sure longtime residents get to stay in their communities to benefit from new amenities

Youth leaders from LSNA, including Ashley Galvan Ramos, center, on the 606 during the recent demonstation. Photo: Iris Postma, LSNA
Youth leaders from LSNA, including Ashley Galvan Ramos, center, on the 606 during the recent demonstation. Photo: Iris Postma, LSNA

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

On the evening of July 19, anyone hoping to take a quiet stroll, jog, or bike ride on the west end of the 606 was out of luck. At California Avenue, young Latino activists formed a human wall across the elevated path, demonstrating against the real estate feeding frenzy that they say is displacing lower-income and working-class residents along the popular greenway.

They held aloft signs that read “Viviendas economicas ahora!” (“Affordable housing now!”) and “Now that the neighborhood is nice, why do I have to move?” According to a report from DNAinfo’s Mina Bloom, most of the runners and bike riders who encountered the blockade turned around without talking to the protesters.

The activists were there to build support for the Pilot Act for the Preservation of Affordable Housing in the 606 Residential Area, legislation that these youth leaders for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) helped craft, which would levy stiff fees on developers who demolish existing housing along the trail to make room for new buildings. The ordinance, introduced in May by three local Latino aldermen, would charge an additional fee of between $300,000 and $650,000 for teardowns, depending on how many units would be lost, as well as a fee for enlarging existing buildings. The law would cover the area bounded by Western, Kostner, Palmer, and Hirsch, along the western half of the trail, which includes parts of Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

The revenue from the fees would go into an affordable housing fund overseen by a board composed of aldermen and reps from community groups like the LSNA and Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), plus staff from the city’s Buildings and Planning and Development Departments. Developers could avoid the fees by setting aside half of their new units for affordable housing.

The demonstration, organized by the LSNA and LUCHA, began with a rally in front of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, located a few blocks north of the 606. Residents gave impassioned testimony about how rising property values, property taxes, and rents, attributed to the path, are changing the demographics of the area. While this part of town was already gentrifying well before the recreation trail opened in June 2015, a recent report from DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies indicates that the greenway has accelerated that trend. The study found that property values along the western stretch of trail have gone up by 48.2 percent since construction began on the greenway.

Along with the 606, another recent development blamed for the displacement of longtime Logan Square residents is the recent boom in the construction of transit-oriented developments—parking-lite residential towers near train stations—along the Blue Line. The city’s TOD ordinance, passed in 2013 and beefed up in 2015, generally waives the usual parking requirements for new housing near el and Metra stations and allows for additional density. While this encourages car-free living, almost all of the Logan developments are upscale apartment buildings, generally with 10 percent of the units designated as affordable.

Eighteen-year-old Ashley Galvan Ramos, one of the LSNA youth leaders who spoke at the rally, told me that before the 606 opened she observed many low-income families living in the corridor, but in recent years many of their homes have been replaced by upscale condos and townhouses. “It seems like gentrification has been happening really fast,” she says. While Ramos doesn’t live near the trail, she’s lived her entire life in Logan Square and said she’s worried about being pushed out of the neighborhood by rising housing costs. “This ordinance is to protect our community and help ensure that we can stay in the place that we call home.”

Interestingly, one of the groups present at the rally to show support for the activists was the Active Transportation Alliance, the region’s walking, biking, and transit advocacy organization, which was one of the leading boosters for building the 606, and has been a staunch supporter of the TOD movement. Active Trans has argued that new greenways help improve public health, reduce congestion and pollution, and help boost local businesses, and that transit-friendly housing reduces dependence on cars. So it might seem like a case of strange bedfellows that staffers from the group showed up for the demonstration and marched with the youth to the trail blockade.

The "MiCa" TOD towers by the California Blue Line stop in Logan Square. Photo: John Greenfield
The “MiCa” TOD towers by the California Blue Line stop in Logan Square. Photo: John Greenfield

Active Trans trail advocacy manager Steve Simmons says that supporting measures to help mitigate the gentrifying effect of neighborhood investments is a logical evolution for his organization, which was launched in 1985 as strictly a pro-cycling organization, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. “We felt we couldn’t overlook the context in which walking, bicycling, and public transit occur given our mission is to promote healthy, sustainable and equitable communities,” he says. “We see the need for policy solutions that prevent displacement.”

Simmons adds that the 606 ordinance aligns with Active Trans’s goal of promoting dense, affordable development near transit, since it discourages downzoning, which decreases the supply of housing and makes it more expensive. “Unfortunately, Chicago has been stagnant and even losing population near transit, partially due to the conversion of multiunit buildings to single-family homes on the north side,” he says. “We realize the ordinance is not the only solution, but it’s a great way to start the conversation on an issue that to date has been largely overlooked.”

In a recent post on Active Trans’s blog, Simmons wrote, “We’d love to see more people using active modes of transportation to get around the city. But the growth of trail networks must be carefully planned so they do not displace longtime residents.”

This is starting to emerge as a citywide issue. In March 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans for the Paseo, a street-level promenade that will wind several miles from Pilsen to Little Village along a disused rail corridor, with landscaping, gathering places, and public art. Reps from community groups such as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization told me that they’re in favor of more open space and recreational opportunities in the area. However, they said they may pull their support for the Paseo if the city isn’t proactive about preserving affordability along the corridor so that current residents can stay in the neighborhood to enjoy it.

Likewise, in the wake of the 606 opening, a proposal to build the Englewood Line Nature Trail on a similar railroad embankment has raised questions about whether such a greenway would lead to higher housing costs in that struggling south-side community.

It’s worth noting that while building beautiful bike trails like the 606 and high-end TODs can contribute to higher property values, taxes, and rents, Chicago’s car-centric status quo also affects residents’ ability to afford housing. Recent Harvard research found that transportation convenient to jobs is the most important factor for people escaping poverty. But car ownership is expensive, so if driving is your only practical option to get to work, it takes a major bite out of your paycheck. Moreover, the city builds and maintains roads and deals with the aftermath of traffic crashes, and taxpayers foot the massive bill for that.

Active Trans is right to support a holistic approach to planning trails and TODs that includes measures for preventing displacement. Moreover, all sustainable transportation advocates trying to get more Chicagoans walking, biking, and riding transit should get behind the affordable housing movement. After all, we’re not really moving the needle if it’s mostly well-to-do white folks who benefit from new city amenities.

  • Tooscrapps

    Housing and transit go hand in hand but I think the 606 ordinance is terribly misguided.

  • Kelly Pierce

    After all, we’re not really moving the needle if it’s mostly
    well-to-do white folks who benefit from new city amenities.

    I reject this notion of white guilt. John forgets that Many “well
    to do white folks” pay the taxes that run Chicago. The 606 delivers the benefit
    of increasing property values to generate higher taxes for the city. The market
    is re-pricing real estate because people are willing to pay a premium to live
    near an L station or bike infrastructure. Should new L stations not be built or
    bike infrastructure developed because whites with higher incomes will drive up
    rents and bid up real estate prices? Cities need higher income people to pay
    the taxes and generate revenue for city services. The assumption in this
    article is that the protesters are unable for some unknown reason to increase
    their skills so their economic value is higher. This would enable them to
    afford the higher rents.

  • rohmen

    “The assumption in this article is that the protesters are unable for some unknown reason to increase their skills so their economic value is higher. This would enable them to afford the higher rents.”

    I always love this argument. People should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps is what it boils down to. The rub being, of course, that our society and economic system is entirely built on cheap labor—just look at our pervasive fast food and cheap consumer goods culture, the people cleaning your office for a fraction of your salary after you leave your economically higher value job, etc., and then explain to me how they’re all going to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they simply just work hard enough without the entire economic fabric of this country unraveling. The simple fact is we need cheap labor to keep living the way we do in this country, you just don’t want to feel guilty about it, so you convince yourself it’s a matter of choice for people stuck in those jobs.

    Also, people move near L stations and things like the 606 because the demand for amenities out strips the supply. It’s not that new L stations or the 606 shouldn’t be built, it’s that resources should be distributed in this city in a manner where building something like that doesn’t result in an area suddenly being viewed as “nice.” If communities have adequate resources distribution to begin with, you wouldn’t see massive upheaval simply because you build a rec trail in the neighborhood.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Has it occurred to you that perhaps privilege exists and systemic inequality going back hundreds of years could possibly have an effect on the economic situation of certain groups?

    The young residents really hit the nail on the head with: “Now that the neighborhood is nice, why do I have to move?”. Imagine for a moment that your parent’s socioeconomic status meant that you were born (you had no choice in this obviously) into a less privileged situation; lets say a bad neighborhood with few amenities, struggling schools and high crime rates. Maybe your parents were immigrants escaping a bad situation somewhere else (that they had no part in creating) or maybe they were just black, or just poor for that matter.

    Now a couple decades later (after actively destroying and/or ghettoizing urban neighborhoods) the mostly white middle class decides city living is in vogue. So they start gentrifying neighborhoods and once again the same group of people find themselves pushed somewhere else away from their communities because of the whims (‘market forces’) of rich liberals from the suburbs.

    Can you see why this is problematic? The world is a complex place and bootstrapism is a simplistic ideology wholly incapable of making sense of it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “After all, we’re not really moving the needle if it’s mostly
    well-to-do white folks who benefit from new city amenities.” I mean this literally — if only a narrow demographic of Chicagoans are tend to benefit from transportation investments, those amenities are doing relatively to increase the overall amount of walking, biking, and transit use in our city.

    There’s a big difference between unproductive “white guilt” and acknowledging the reality that, when it comes to achieving economic success, the playing field is far from level: http://www.benjerry.com/whats-new/2016/systemic-racism-is-real

    “Should new ‘L’ stations not be built or bike infrastructure developed because whites with higher incomes will drive up rents and bid up real estate prices?” No. Let’s 1) make sure that such investments in gentrifying neighborhoods are paired with proactive strategies to maintain affordability for longtime residents 2) make these investments in every neighborhood, so that when a beautiful bike trail or sparkling new train station opens it doesn’t result in a real estate feeding frenzy.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Local governmental institutions have committed to expanding
    racial and economic opportunity. This is one of the reasons Jacob free
    community college has become available to graduates of the Chicago Public Schools
    in recent years. Community college classes, certificates and diplomas represent
    the training for jobs in the greatest demand. A study last year from financial giant
    JP Morgan-Chase found that about 55 percent of jobs require training beyond a
    high school diploma but not a college degree.

    One surefire way to push out new capital investment is to create
    new fees and regulations to property owners that significantly prevent them
    from exercising their property rights. The new law will do little to prevent the
    rent increases causing those protesting to move. Chicago definitely needs more multi-family
    housing. Thousands of new rental units are added each year in Chicago. Yet, average
    rents keep increasing. Affordability begins to happen once the market reaches
    saturation and rents stabilize or decline. Aldermen in other wards are opposing
    multi-family apartment buildings near the L, which limits affordable housing
    choices and job options.

    Chicago also needs more bike infrastructure throughout the
    city like the Paseo. Pilsen like the Wicker and Humble Park neighborhoods is a
    short train ride to the Loop. It sounds like though paid community activists
    are opposed because it might raise property values and enable current residents
    to walk away with new family wealth from newly repriced property. I welcome
    their policy proposals beyond big down conversion fees for achieving their
    goals.