Young Leaders Discuss Ways to Improve Communities Without Displacing Residents

Moore, Lopez, Woods, and Carruthers. Photo: John Greenfied
Moore, Lopez, Woods, and Carruthers. Photo: John Greenfied

Streetsblog reporter Lynda Lopez is a local leader when it comes to examining the intersections of transportation and social justice issues. So it wasn’t surprising that she was invited to participate in the Chicago Center for Leadership and Transformation’s symposium on gentrification, including discussion of displacement related to new transportation amenities, called “Who Is Chicago For?

“Curious, confused or angry about what’s happening in your neighborhood?” said the event invite. “Folks moving in, people being pushed out… Join us for our first learning circle featuring a conversation about displacement and gentrification in Black and Brown communities.” In addition to Lynda, the panel of speakers, moderated by CCLT’s Charlene Carruthers, also included WBEZ’s Natalie Moore and Tony Woods from the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

Carruthers kicked off the event by defining housing displacement as the forced removal of longtime residents who are priced out of their community by rising housing costs, and characterizing gentrification as “modern-day colonization.” She invited attendees to answer three questions with Post-It notes on display boards: “How is displacement impacting your community?” “What is being done about displacement in your community?” and “What do you think will stop displacement in your community?”

“Forced assimilation and cultural erasure,” wrote one attendee in response to the first question.

“Rogers Park and Uptown are the last affordable and integrated neighborhoods on the North Side, so white middle- and upper-class folks from the surrounding areas are slowly moving in,” said another.

“Black and Brown people must be able to accumulate wealth by owning their own homes,” wrote another participant, suggesting a solution to prevent displacement.

“Rent control, mixed-income affordable housing; strong community public schools,” recommended another attendee.”

One participant called for negotiating a community benefits agreement of the Obama Presidential Center in Woodlawn, and cited the Elevated Chicago initiative to promote affordable transit-oriented development.

Participants answer questions about displacement with Post-Its. Photo: John Greenfield
Participants answer questions about displacement with Post-Its. Photo: John Greenfield

During the panel discussion Carruthers asked the panelists to address the three questions. Moore argued that gentrification is class-, not race-based, “but class and race are first cousins.” She noted that Black people can be gentrifiers, but added that studies show that displacement of lower-income residents tends to happen more slowly when the more affluent folks moving into an African-American neighborhood are also Black.

“Data shows that the Black middle class is disappearing in Chicago,” Moore said, noting that African-American neighborhoods still have’t recovered from the 2008 economic crash. She argued that the growing wealth gap in Chicago is reflected in the fact that the ALDI discount food store chain is currently the leading grocery store in Chicago, but we’re also seeing a boom in the relatively upscale Mariano’s supermarkets.

In response to the question, “What is preventing Chicago from being for everyone?” Moore cited race-neutral policies as being a problem. For example, she acknowledged that the city’s transit-oriented development ordinance, which allows developers to build more housing density and fewer car parking spots on land near transit, is beneficial in that it decreases driving. However, she noted that most TODs have been built in affluent and gentrifying neighborhoods, so the policy hasn’t been as helpful in Black and Brown communities on the South and West sides, where retail and other destinations tend to be fewer and farther apart, which makes it harder to get things done without driving.

When it was her turn to answer the question “Who is Chicago for?” Lynda noted that the “Building a New Chicago” signs that were posted by infrastructure projects under the Rahm Emanuel administration seemed to raise that question — who were the projects intended for, current or future residents?

She noted that when she was growing up in Humboldt Park, her school and library were near her home, and her mother was able to walk to work. “There were all these messages that this neighborhood was for me,” she said.

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However, while attending the University of Chicago, she became aware of the history of the school’s influence on local housing and retail, such as the demolition of low-cost housing and independent businesses during the Urban Renewal period. She also brought up the concerns about rising housing costs associated with the Obama Presidential Center.

After college Lynda moved back in with her family, now living in the Hermosa community, and got involved with affordable housing issues through groups like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, addressing concerns like rising rents and home prices along the Bloomingdale Trail corridor. “Some people say that the neighborhood is in a pre-gentrification period,” she said. “Logan Square gentrification is really in your face, but some of the same things are happening in Hermosa.

She noted that her family still lives in Hermosa and hopes to buy a home there after renting for years, but home prices have risen significantly in recent years. “I hope my family can remain there.”

Lynda added that she dislikes assertions that “Logan Square is gone” or “Pilsen is gone” in terms of being completely gentrified, calling them erasure of the fact that many longtime residents of color are still living in these communities, she said. “People like LSNA are still on the ground and fighting.”

Tony Woods discussed IMAN’s “Light in the Night” initiative, which includes hosting three events a week to provide a safe space for residents, with free food, information about community resources, and family-friendly activities. He noted that while young men, the demographic that is most likely to get caught up in crime and violence, often stand on the periphery of these types of events, IMAN makes a point of reaching to them and establishing relationships, in hopes of eventually connecting them with job training opportunities and other resources.

“Who is Chicago for?” Woods said. “I don’t think it’s for us at this point, but it should be for everyone.” He noted that recent studies have found a 30-year gap in the average life expectancy between Streeterville and Englewood residents, and a $100,000 income gap. “The disparities are crazy. We’re living in a city divided.”

  • rohmen

    It’s obviously a tough issue, but the idea that neighborhoods in major U.S. cities should stay culturally/ethnically fixed, and any shift amount to modern day colonization, is a pretty recent position. I say this while being completely sympathetic to gentrification concerns, but Logan Square and Humboldt Park were not culturally what they are today even 50 years ago in a City that’s been incorporated for 182 years.

    I lay a lot of the blame on de facto segregation policies that created heavily separated communities in the first place, and that in turn makes me think current residents do have a right to be upset that they’re being pushed out of an area they were pushed into in the past, but I’m also troubled by the idea that areas should be somehow be culturally and ethnically frozen in amber, with people that move to those areas automatically derogatorily labeled as colonizers.

  • carl jacobs

    How do you improve a community without displacing residents?

    You don’t. Not if you define “improvement” in terms of “a desirable place to live”. There is no way to prevent demand from driving up land values. This will always disadvantage low income consumers. This process in fact benefits property owners in the neighborhood. They can realize a substantial capital gain on their property. That’s a good thing.

    So what about renters? The burden must of necessity fall upon them. They have no interest in the property beyond the terms of their lease. A tenant doesn’t acquire a right to a perpetual lease simply by occupying an apartment. If the property owner wants to sell to a developer or change the lease, that is his right. He has no obligations to a tenant beyond the terms of the lease. Likewise, the tenant has no obligation to either the property or the landlord beyond the lease. This is the cost/benefit trade implicit in renting – no responsibility for the property and no right to the property.

    So can we protect renters with rent control? It produces stasis. It only benefits current renters and only so long as the rent controlled supply can be maintained. Low income set asides? They amount to tokenism by lottery. The amount of low income housing created will be far exceeded by new development. And even this set aside will be difficult to maintain over time.

    So how then do you create the classless neighborhood where people of different incomes compete equally for the same property? You don’t. It’s impossible. Demand drives price. Price drives behavior. People without the means to compete will be displaced. You can complain about this, but it would be the same thing as complaining about fluid displacing air when a glass is filled with water.

  • planetshwoop

    Arguing that “well, that’s just the way it is” I feel is quite hurtful to the views and struggles of the people and their views. Getting priced out of a neighborhood is awful, and simply imagining there is nothing to be done is kind of heartless.

    Of course there are LOTS of things to do.

    The easiest first step is to increase supply. This means changes to allow for mother-in-law units, conversions, or make it easier to build 2-3 flats, not just single family homes.

    But there are other things: you can be more strict about creating affordable housing for new developments; you can enact policy changes that makes it harder to convert 2-3 flats into single family homes; you can supply capital to encourage home ownership for people who are displaced to make them have a chance.

    Encouraging investors to build the affordable housing the city needs can be done is a piece of the long term solution. If too much of the investment is going to high-end, it’s possible through policy to provide capital for other forms. It just needs to be a priority.

  • Gary Chicago

    We keep electing the same Democratic Party officials who look and feel like they should help their minority constituents but end up self serving themselves and their families
    Yes Chicago has lost almost 400,000 African American , they voted with their feet , because the city and the same leaders they voted in failed them not because of gentrification.

  • craterlet

    So how then do you create the classless neighborhood where people of different incomes compete equally for the same property?

    This question is key, but Carl misses the obvious answer: doing something about income inequality. For example, progressive taxation.

    I also think increasing supply and getting rid of the zoning preference for single family homes (like Minneapolis did) is essential. However building new affordable housing is really hard to do (new housing is expensive). In a market with enough supply, older housing units would (hopefully) form a natural supply of affordable housing.

  • rohmen

    Exactly. There’s a lot that could be done, including providing property tax assistance to people that get priced out of owning their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. You could do it similar to HUD programs where residents are given essentially grants/mortgages to help cover increases that they don’t have to pay until they sell their home.

    When they do sell, and collect a profit given the equity built, the grant gets paid back to the City (with reasonable interest) out of the proceeds. That keeps people in their homes that want to remain but can’t afford rising taxes, but allows the City to recapture the money when they sell and cash out.

    That’s just a quick example of what could be done, especially in areas like Pilsen where Latinix homes ownership is actually high and people are worried about being taxed out. It also keeps the neighborhood more diverse and stable, which in turn hopefully helps keeps costs down in total since the neighborhood doesn’t “flip” as fast.

  • Brian Berg

    An important error of omission is the impact of a new Jewel in Woodlawn that brought 300 jobs mostly for local residents and eliminated a food desert, not to mention the south side’s only transit oriented development– the new Woodlawn Station? Woodlawn is an example of density without displacement.

  • paulrandall

    How many African Americans moved to the suburbs because they could afford to and still work in Chicago? How many moved outside the region because they couldn’t afford to stay here and were under or unemployed?

  • paulrandall

    We can’t cherry pick in which neighborhoods people are protected from property tax inflation and which ones aren’t. The solution is a CA Prop 13 type property tax system with a large capital gains tax collected upon sale of the property. It works and its fairer than the corrupt system we now have.

  • paulrandall

    The best public policy is for the city to stay ahead of the property inflation curve by buying land for affordable housing while it’s still affordable, before public dollars are spent on improvements like the OPC, El Paseo or the 606, that spur neighborhood reinvestment and subsequent gentrification driven displacement.

  • rohmen

    First, why can’t we? We already cherry pick neighborhoods across the country for tax relief a variety of reasons, including historical district tax credits, development incentive tax credits, etc. Second, it’s not cherry picking which neighborhoods are protected, it’s offering grant relief to people for property tax increases where their monthly income doesn’t allow them to keep pace with the inflation. Anyone anywhere in the City could seek such a grant if they qualify on an income level. The issues are going to be most prevalent in gentrifying areas seeing crazy swings in property valuation, but that doesn’t mean we’re cherry picking just those areas. Lastly, those sort of tax relief grants exist in other states, so any objection you’re raising is a very likely a “moral” one, not a legal one.

    Also, Prop 13 has created a ton of problematic issues for California. I’m not going to dump the articles here, but about 2 seconds on google will give people more than they ever want to read.

  • rohmen

    I think there’s really two stories here with respect to Chicago. You have gentrification pushing out Latinix residents in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen, and decades of disinvestment pushing out residents in predominantly black neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, and Englewood. While premarily Latinix neighborhoods have gentrified rather quickly when developments like the 606, etc., occurred, gentrification has been much, much slower in predominantly black neighborhoods, with only really Bronzeville, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and the Near West Side even qualifying as gentrifying.

    Maybe something like the Obama library would cause a rapid increase in terms of gentrification on the South Side, but I’m not sure that’s even true, and I think the knee jerk reaction that any development (which is sorely needed in many south side areas for jobs) along those lines will bring gentrification need to be examined on a deeper level here.

  • paulrandall

    “it’s offering grant relief to people for property tax increases where their monthly income doesn’t allow them to keep pace with the inflation.”

    I haven’t seen anything like this proposed anywhere. Basing property taxes on income as well as property valuation is an interesting idea. It will probably devolve into a cesspool of corruption and scandal as homeowners game the system by hiring sleazy lawyers to process their fake requests for tax reductions. Even more money will be siphoned off the top.

    I prefer California’s system. It eliminates lawyers and corruption. It simplifies the system and everyone gets the same protections. It’s flawed in that people owning the same home pay different taxes but then your system has the same feature.

  • Gary Chicago

    In a nut shell many AA moved out of the city because their elected leaders failed them , They lagged in all of the metrics of income , employment , wealth creation etc and many got out of the state creating a reverse migration to the south

  • paulrandall

    Everything you say, but I’d still like to see a deeper dive into those numbers. Chicago has a large and vibrant black middle class, even as it remains one of the most segregated cities in America with poverty and violence in disinvested neighborhoods.