Activists Build Tent City To Show What Could Happen Without Affordable Housing Around Obama Library

Attendees set up tents for an all-day protest at a vacant, city-owned lot. Community leaders from across the city called for affordable housing protections for Woodlawn that go beyond the city's recent proposal.

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Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

BYP100 activist Ashli Giles-Perkins speaks at a press conference at "Lightfoot's Tent City" Thursday.(Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago)

This story was originally published by Block Club Chicago.

WOODLAWN — Dozens of members of a coalition fighting for affordable housing protections in the neighborhoods surrounding the future Obama Presidential Center set up a “tent city” Thursday in a city-owned, vacant lot, warning that’s what the city could look like if people are displaced.

Lens on Lightfoot

Members of the Obama CBA Coalition set up for the day in Woodlawn to outline their demands. Their expansive community benefits agreement, drafted to prevent displacement in advance of the Obama Presidential Center’s planned construction in Jackson Park, has stalled in City Council for nearly a year.

Organizers are demanding changes to the scaled-back protections proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s housing department in a February draft ordinance, including:

  • The development of affordable two- and three-bedroom units.
  • $5 million in funding for homeownership programs for working families, compared to the city’s proposed $1.5 million allocation.
  • The inclusion of Washington Park in the ordinance’s boundaries.

The draft ordinance calls for reserving 75 percent of housing built on currently vacant, city-owned land. The CBA Coalition has pulled back on its initial demand to reserve all city land for affordable housing, but it is calling for that 75 percent to be “truly affordable.”

“Affordable housing” in the draft ordinance means housing attainable for tenants making 80 percent of Chicago’s area median income, which is $65,550 annually for a three-person household.

The average household income for Woodlawn — where the average household size is 2.5 people — is $25,122.

To highlight these demands, organizers centered Thursday’s protest around an encampment at a vacant lot at 63rd Street and Blackstone Avenue. They named the setup “Lightfoot’s Tent City,” saying it is up to the mayor to ensure stronger protections against displacement in Woodlawn.

The tent city was set up at a vacant, city-owned lot at 63rd Street and Blackstone Avenue. In the background are the Park Shore East Apartments, an affordable housing co-op community. (Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago)

“We’re calling on Lightfoot to pass this ordinance,” said Ashli Giles-Perkins, an organizer with the coalition and Black Youth Project 100. “We’re going to name it after her because this is what the city could look like if people are displaced and evicted from their homes.”

A day of performances, education and press conferences was followed by an evening march along 63rd Street. Some attendees slept on-site overnight.

Displacement happens regularly across the city as officials fail to take action to protect longterm residents, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said at a press conference.

“We’ve seen [displacement] happen over and over again,” Taylor said. “I am one of the folks who got displaced from the 3rd Ward the minute we got the Harold Washington Cultural Center. You saw the property taxes go up, and you saw them gentrifying the community for the people who they want to bring.”

Taylor introduced the CBA ordinance last July with Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and has vowed to block the city’s “totally inadequate” proposal if it isn’t strengthened.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) also attended the protest. His ward “just celebrated, commemorated, grieved the five-year anniversary” of the Bloomingdale Trail, which has spurred displacement in Logan Square and surrounding neighborhoods, he said in an interview with Block Club.

grant program for long-term homeowners near the trail — which would be expanded to Woodlawn under the city’s proposal — and other efforts to prevent displacement came long after construction began.

City officials “shouted down” residents’ demands for strong protections ahead of the trail’s opening, La Spata said, and the same thing cannot happen in Woodlawn.

“Residents [in Woodlawn] are right to be angry and incensed by what they’re seeing, and they deserve the most radical protections we can offer them,” La Spata said.

La Spata joined Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and North Side Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) in a citywide show of support.

Woodlawn residents Wardell Lavender and Alphonso Jones said they’re fighting for affordable housing because Lightfoot, the Chicago Housing Authority and other city officials haven’t proven they’ll look out for longterm residents.

The CHA has “got thousands of vacant apartments and won’t lease out none of them; then you got all these homeless families on the street,” said Jones, who is 75 and a lifelong Woodlawn resident. “That’s why I’m out here.”

Wardell Lavender, Shannon Bennett and Alphonso Jones pose with a sign reading “Lightfoot Stop Making Us Homeless” at Thursday’s protest. (Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago)

Decades of disinvestment and white flight have left Woodlawn mostly poor and predominantly Black. But with the pending arrival of the Obama Center, Lavender and Jones are concerned the demographics will shift again without the city’s intervention.

“I’ve been here for 60-something years. I was here when it was segregated,” Lavender said. “We moved into their area over here, and now they’re moving us out of the area like we did them.”

The “Lens On Lightfoot” project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.