CBA meeting elicits mixed responses from Woodlawn residents

As long-time Woodlawn resident Darwin Brown listens, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) indicates that a speaker has the floor during Tuesday’s community discussion about the proposed Community Benefits Agreement Ordinance. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

By AARON GETTINGER

Staff writer

Numerous Woodlawn residents expressed anxiety and fear about displacement at a meeting Tuesday sponsored by Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) set up to discuss the community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance scheduled to be introduced in the City Council on July 24, but others expressed opposition to the CBA’s anti-free market tenets.

Taylor, who often recalls moving to Woodlawn eight years ago after being priced out of Bronzeville, recalled disinvestment in low-income housing, closing neighborhood schools and local business ownership that did not reflect the demographics of her native Kenwood-Oakland. “That is how they gentrify a community, and we see it happening on the South and West sides all the time, every time investment happens in our community.”

“I believe that everybody deserves to live where they would like to. And in Chicago, we know historically that does not happen,” she said, saying that the city can “tax out and rent out working families of color.”

“I’m not in this seat because I want to put on a rainbow and sunshine,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to hang together, or we’re going to hang together — and I hope y’all understand what that means,” Taylor said.

Taylor called the CBA ordinance “a working, living document” and said, even if she and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) introduce the CBA ordinance, it would go to committee, be subject to amendments and be voted on. “We’re not going to get a document that everyone 100% agrees with. It’s just not going to happen,” she said, saying it would instead offer immediate protection and be fixable after it passes.

The CBA ordinance is planned to include a property tax freeze for all homeowners within a yet-undetermined radius of the OPC. “There are some people who’ve chosen to serve this community or live here; they deserve to stay. This document will help that happen and make the city have to monitor how it happens,” Taylor said.

Attendee Lorne Green raised questions about the CBA’s proposed property tax freeze and anti-displacement task force. “It seems like two objectives,” he said. Taylor said the task force would study where the money to pay for a property tax freeze would come from, also mentioning the CBA’s proposed community trust for home repair and property tax relief.

Alex Goldenberg, executive director of Southside Together Organizing for Power, said the CBA Coalition learned it would be unconstitutional to simply freeze property taxes. “However, there are things we can do, working with the County Assessor’s office, to figure out what kind of property tax relief can be offered, what would be needed to potentially do some state-level work to allow this to happen,” he said. “In the interim, we hope that the community trust fund could provide some relief.”

Eligibility for the property tax relief is still under consideration, aside for those who have owned property since 2008. The task force would engage community members and County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to “lay out what those benefits ought to be,” Goldenberg said.

Green also questioned why development on city-owned vacant land would be restricted to affordable housing or local ownership. “Shouldn’t any houses that are built on a block be similar and value to the rest of the houses on the block, to maintain the property values of the houses they are adjacent to?” he asked. “It would be nice if all the homeowners were paying the same property value, as opposed to the disparity.”

When Taylor said new homes priced at $600,000 were in development long before she took office in May, Green said he was in favor of $600,000 homes. “Truth is — and I can only speak for Woodlawn — it’s been 30, 40, 50 years when their house values have been way below market value,” he said, adding that Woodlawn already has a lot of affordable housing that should be maintained alongside new housing “that brings value to current homeowners’ homes.”

Home values in Woodlawn have increased value far more rapidly than the city’s average since the Obama Foundation announced plans to locate the OPC in Jackson Park. A Herald special report found that outside investors are pouring vast resources into neighborhood.

Shannon Bennett, deputy director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization cautioned homeowners against complacency. “I know Woodlawn wants development,” he said, recounting how residents expressed envy of North Kenwood-Oakland’s development. “Eventually you will get there. Part of the mistake about what’s happening in North Kenwood-Oakland is that only particular incomes are benefitting from the development. If you don’t believe me, just go on [real estate brokerage] Redfin and look at what things are going for,” he said. “Slow down on what you’re wishing for without looking at true balanced development.”

Attendee Clasonda Grandison concurred. “The reason why I say we need to holistically look at the issue that’s at hand is because if we continue to look at this through the sidelines of only looking out for low-income, we won’t be able to speak to the city appropriately when they do ask us what the higher income bracket would like,” she said. “Everything needs to be covered, even if it’s only 5% of the housing that’s over $600,000. It’s already here! So, we need to include it in the thinking, so they know that we’ve done the due diligence to address the fact and definitely emphasize that the affordable housing is what we are most-interested in solidifying.”

Real estate developer Bill Williams said he returned to Woodlawn 10 years ago, after his family moved, because he “romanticized” the neighborhood for its amenities and location. He encouraged high-density development on the neighborhood’s commercial corridors for expected tax revenue.

“I’ve read the CBA, and I noticed that ‘affordable’ means 30% of [area median income],” he said. “That equates to like $26,000 a year for a family of four. If you pay 30% of that, that’s like $8,000 a year in rent. So, without a subsidy of some kind, it would be hard to build a structure and support that. It’s not about developers making money. It just won’t be financeable without a city or some [other] type of subsidy.” The Chicago Housing Authority is “fighting tooth and nail for any dime,” he said, and a 1,000-square-foot apartment costs $300,000 to build.

“You have to think about those components,” Williams said. “Do you want a neighborhood that naturally, organically grows? Or do you want to have a city that invests money in [commercial] corridors and lets the rest organically grow? Or else you’ll wind up with a spotty neighborhood, and nothing will happen.”

Goldenberg clarified that 30% of housing would be set aside as affordable, but not all at 30% of area median income. Only a third would, with the others priced at up to half of the area median income. Williams countered that “other renters behind them would pay the difference.”

Attendee Melanie Moore moved to Woodlawn 15 years ago and urged continued, representative community oversight of housing. “What I see people doing is selling us out, going along to get along,” she said. “Woodlawn is unique. I swear to God before what they’re doing to Humboldt Park happens in Woodlawn. It’s not going to happen.” She noted that many of its residents are either impoverished or relatively well-off and, as more and more higher-income people move to the neighborhood, that the area’s median income would creep up.

“We’ve got to use our tools and use everything to ensure there’s equity within this,” Moore said. “We don’t have to infight. We have to ensure that everyone’s taken care of. If y’all want the high-end folks to come in, that’s fine. There’s enough land for everybody. We do not have to fight. There’s enough land for everybody.”

When Green referenced non-Woodlawn residents at the meeting and the meeting lapsed into bickering, Taylor reestablished order. “Let’s not act like we are not neighbors,” she said.

Taylor said she and Hairston have another meeting about the ordinance scheduled for Monday, July 22.

a.gettinger@hpherald.com