The Fight for Affordable Housing

The city skyline from the Near West side. (Image: Justin Kern CC-by-sa-nc)

By Curtis Black

Chicago’s shortage of affordable housing has only grown during the past decade, both during the housing boom, with rentals converted to condos, and since the crash, with tens of thousands of apartment buildings falling into foreclosure.

Curtis Black covers community organizations and nonprofits at Newstips for Community Media Workshop. His reporting and analysis has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, Chicago Reader, Time Magazine, In These Times, and the Huffington Post.

But steering against strong economic headwinds, a tenacious community development movement has continued to create housing and foster economic development in some of the city’s most challenging neighborhoods. There’s also increased attention on affordable housing threatened by the loss of federal subsidies.

In the 1970s, responding to the loss of population and jobs, a new breed of neighborhood group – nonprofit community development corporations — went beyond protest to become active players, with a variety of groups focused on housing, commercial development, or industrial retention.

Filling the role played in many countries by unions and governments, affordable housing groups have tackled the problem of a for-profit market that is far out of synch with real housing needs, with market-based development often pushing out existing residents.

National leader

Four decades later, with many thousands of additional units of affordable housing, Chicago is a national leader in the community development movement, the nation’s most accomplished builder of neighborhoods from the inside, by and with residents.  Chicago’s community development sector includes groups with long deep experience and expertise in building, financing, and advocating for affordable housing.

Groups like Bickerdike Redevelopment CorporationHispanic Housing Development Corporation, and Claretian Associates have continued to produce housing, even through the depths of the recent recession.

Backing such efforts is a network of nonprofit financial institutions, each with its own niche: Neighborhood Housing Services lends to individual homeowners and provides homeowner education and counseling; the Community Investment Corporation lends to small landlords providing affordable housing, and offers property management training; Illinois Facilities Funds helps finance and build facilities for nonprofits in housing, health care, education and childcare.

NHS and IFF also do direct housing development.  CIC is coordinating the Preservation Compact, a public-private effort to staunch to loss of affordable housing units.

Holistic approach

LISC -Chicago provides financing, technical assistance and capacity building to grassroots development groups.  Since 2003, local networks in 16 neighborhoods have come together through the group’s New Communities Program, centered around an intensive community planning process.  Recognizing the need for a comprehensive approach to development, the groups coordinate efforts around housing, retail, employment, health and safety concerns with a holistic approach.

One piece is the Smart Communities program, which bridges the digital divide with training, access to technology, and help for local businesses.  Community web portals generate local content about neighborhood news and resources (they’re all available at NCP’s Neighborhood News site).  A new project looks at possibilities for urban gardens and farms in South Side areas with large vacant tracts.

Neighborhoods near McCormick Place demonstrate continuing progress in hard times.  In Bronzeville to the south, Quad Communities Development Corporation is strategically marshalling long-term investments to lay the groundwork for a revived retail sector.  Construction begins this year on two mixed-used developments on the Cottage Grove corridor.

To the west, The Resurrection Project continues foreclosure prevention efforts but has also just opened a new six-story dormitory to support neighborhood students attending area colleges.  That’s on top of a new health center, new senior housing and services, and new schools built in recent years.

Another level of expertise is brought to bear by groups like the Woodstock Institute, the Chicago Rehab Network, and Housing Action Illinois, which provide research and advocacy that support community development efforts.

Woodstock is a lead partner in the Regional Home Ownership Preservation Initiative, which joins public, private, and nonprofit agencies to focus on mitigating the impact of foreclosure crisis on the city’s affordable housing stock. CRN closely monitors the city’s affordable housing plan.  The group has criticized city development policies which reinforce gentrification and cause displacement, called for strict regulation of rental conversion, and proposed policies (PDF link) to “make an affordable city.”

Saving housing subsidies

Meanwhile, organizing groups are focused on the potential loss of federally-subsidized housing, both privately-owned and public. The Chicago Housing Initiative joins tenants of 58 subsidized developments organizing through seven community groups to seek better conditions and long-term affordability and to fight budget cuts in Washington.

CHI members including the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization organize tenants in large subsidized buildings, in part to give them the option of tenant management if developers bow out of expiring subsidies.  After a ten-year MTO campaign at Parkway Gardens on the South Side, the largest HUD-backed private development in Chicago, a new owner recently commited to extending subsidies for 30 years and investing $40 million in building improvements.

Southside Together Organizing for Power united tenants at Grove Parc Plaza in Woodlawn and helped bring in a national affordable housing group to preserve 500 units of subsidized housing. STOP has tenant councils in five subsidized buildings.

CHI is also highlighting thousands of habitable public housing units that the Chicago Housing Authority is refusing to lease.  While CHA’s plan to transform projects into mixed-income developments has stalled, 6,000 of CHA’s remaining 22,000 units are empty, including many in recently-rehabbed buildings.  On the West Side a 20-story senior building has been vacant since 2007, though major repairs were completed several years ago.

Meanwhile nearly 60,000 very-low-income families are on CHA’s waiting lists – and the agency continues to receive federal operating funds for vacant apartments, according to CHI.

Public housing vacancies

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is working with residents of Lathrop Homes, a model New Deal-era low-rise public housing development along with Chicago River. CHA wants to replace half the units with high-rise condos, though the North Side neighborhood’s condo market is saturated. CHA stopped leasing vacant units in 2000, and two-thirds of Lathrop is vacant.

Residents have called for full occupancy and for redeveloping Lathrop as 100 percent-affordable; Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois, concerned with historically-significant architecture, have joined their efforts. (In a recent victory for residents, Lathrop Homes was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.)

Just south of McCormick Place, residency levels at CHA’s Lake Parc Place have steadily declined since it was fully rehabbed as mixed-income housing in 2004; more than half its units are now empty. “The mixed-income model doesn’t work,” said KOCO’s Brian Malone.  (Some development groups, especially those working with CHA, would disagree.)

On the North Side, in areas where single-room-occupancy buildings still offer affordable housing, Lakeview Action Coalition and Organization of the North East are working to ensure upkeep and keep rents down. LAC is currently building support for an affordable housing initiative for Lincoln Park, a neighborhood that was gentrified decades ago.

On another front, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless does outreach at shelters and organizes homeless youth and sex trade survivors. For twenty years the group’s Women’s Empowerment Project has worked with homeless women to become advocates for their families and for better policies. Spearheading Sweet Home Chicago, a coalition of community groups, CCH won a share of city development subsidies for affordable housing last year.

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