In East Garfield Park, an innovative community effort to preserve affordable housing was just getting off the ground this spring when the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago –— and the stakes involved in the new project increased dramatically.
It was March 10 when residents released a Blueprint for Community Action to preserve affordability, following a nearly year-long community planning process. The blueprint laid out a series of immediate and long-term priorities around community benefits agreements, local business development, preventing displacement of renters and homeowners and increasing community ownership.
Within a couple weeks the state ordered the shutdown of non-essential businesses, many residents lost income, and a two-prong threat emerged — the possibility of mass evictions when the current state moratorium is lifted, and the possibility of a new wave of foreclosures hitting moderate-income homeowners as well as the small landlords who provide much of the neighborhood’s affordable housing, said Juan Sebastian Arias of the Metropolitan Planning Council. Along with DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies, MPC has provided technical support for East Garfield Park’s organizing effort.
While grassroots participants like the Garfield Park Community Council are engaged in outreach and mutual aid efforts around the immediate crisis, work is continuing — with teleconferences replacing weekly meetings — on the blueprint’s first step, creating a community coalition dedicated to development without displacement, Arias said. The coalition will unite community groups, churches and individuals to build local power in order to hold public officials accountable and attract resources to support local strategies.
“Now it’s important to be proactive” and “to apply the lessons of the 2008 recession” and the foreclosure crisis that ensued, Arias said. That crisis “created opportunities for investors and speculators to come in and purchase significant amounts of housing stock.” He noted that investors are now creating capital pools in anticipation of a repeat of that scenario. “A land grab by speculators would be a huge problem” for residents working to stabilize their community, he said.
Among other factors, he notes the likelihood that small landlords have relationships with tenants and a willingness to be flexible on rent payments — though they also have less capacity to cover mortgage payments and other expenses without income.
Bordering Humboldt Park and the Near West Side, East Garfield Park is already a place where outside investment pressures are increasing and residents are struggling to cover housing costs, Arias said. According to data from MPC and DePaul, more than half of all residents in the neighborhood earn less than $25,000 a year, and 64% of tenants are rent burdened. More than half of the neighborhood’s rental units are found in 2- to 4-flats, and the average sale price of those buildings in East Garfield Park has quadrupled since 2012.
“What’s at stake is the wholesale gentrification of that part of the neighborhood, and that means the displacement and replacement of low-income residents who have been living in the community, sometimes for generations,” said Stephanie Nobile, a lifelong East Garfield Park resident who participated in the blueprint planning. She emphasized that displacement is not just the result of market forces but of government policies that “facilitate development to happen in a certain way.”
“For African American families that have been living here since the 1950s or ‘60s, who have endured decades of disinvestment, of redlining, of a drug epidemic and the war on drugs,” as well as an ongoing series of cuts including recent school closings, “for there now to be an influx of assets and resources, and for the people who’ve lived through all this to be forced out, not allowed to benefit from new development, that just adds insult to injury,” Nobile said.
Noting that “it could be a very, very long time” before the economy recovers, Arias said the state’s moratorium on evictions needs to be extended beyond the current stay-at-home order — and needs to be strictly enforced. The biggest need is for direct cash assistance to help tenants pay rent, he said. MPC has backed a national drive for $100 billion in federal housing assistance as well as state and local proposals, and assistance needs to include undocumented workers and mixed-status households, he said.
“By shoring up tenants unable to pay rent, this assistance will stabilize building owners, neighborhoods, and the entire housing market,” Arias wrote in a recent blog post. Also needed is mortgage forebearance and other support for small landlords and nonprofit housing agencies providing affordable rentals, he said.
And with an upsurge of evictions possible down the road — and a rapidly shifting legal landscape — the state or city should follow the lead of other major cities and give tenants the right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings, Arias said.
Meanwhile, displacement pressures could be magnified if the economic downturn continues — giving increased urgency to key priorities laid out in East Garfield Park’s blueprint. These include working with nonprofit developers to keep small rental buildings affordable and assisting homeowners with property tax appeals and home repairs. And they include proposals to increase community ownership of housing, by establishing low-equity housing cooperatives and creating a community land trust.
Community land trusts are being established in several Chicago communities and have the capacity to preserve existing affordable housing and help low-income families build modest amounts of wealth — while costing far less than new construction.
Numerous vacant lots and properties owned by the Cook County Land Bank and the city in East Garfield Park could also be a resource to help low-equity co-ops get off the ground, Arias said — as could an existing TIF district in the area. Nobile said such co-ops were one of the most exciting proposals under discussion because they would give access to homeownership to residents who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
Other proposals in the blueprint envision citywide action, including a Community Benefits Ordinance mandating that large projects include community advisory boards and employment set-asides for local residents — Detroit has such an ordinance, Arias said — or an ordinance mandating that new development on city-owned land include affordable housing and quality jobs for community members. The blueprint also proposes an “affordable retail space mandate” requiring commercial developers to offer affordable space to community-based businesses.
Heading off a potentially devastating new housing crisis will require community empowerment and initiative as well as a major commitment of public resources, particularly on the federal level. Residents of East Garfield Park and other communities are doing their part. It remains to be seen if our government will take up its responsibility to support their efforts.