Another Measure Of Urban Removal In Uptown Is Underway

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On July 21, the Chicago City Council officially rezoned the Weiss Hospital parking lot on 4600 Marine Drive from medical to residential use. Submitted by Lincoln Properties, and championed by the 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, this development paves the way for constructing a 314-unit luxury apartment building – a proposal that has been vociferously objected to by the people of Uptown.

These objections come in the wake of the growing lack of affordable housing in Uptown, coupled with the declining racial and income diversity of the neighborhood. Today, whites comprise over 50% of Uptown’s residents, with all other non-white race/ethnicities having declined, some significantly. Correspondingly, the median income has also increased from $19,711 in 1989, to $55,100 in 2018. Whether it was deindustrialization policies, racial restrictive covenants, the growth of the prison industrial complex, or urban ‘development’ projects that were crafted for the wealthy, these technologies of racial and class differentiation have materialized in the last decade or two in terms of an increased pace of gentrification in Uptown, the disappearance of affordable housing, the displacement of minoritized communities, and the return migration of those who had earlier fled the city, in what is generally referred to as ‘white flight in reverse.’

This is markedly different from the history of Uptown.  Uptown has long been a portal for immigrants and refugees  – many of whom were displaced from their home countries or from  neighborhoods that were subjected to forms of structural violence that disproportionately affected the poor and communities of color. In Uptown, these minoritized communities included Native Americans forcibly relocated to urban centers due to the 1952 Federal Relocation Program; Puerto Ricans who were doubly displaced by Operation Bootstrap and the subsequent gentrification of Lincoln Park; Appalachians from the South who lost their jobs with the mechanization and closure of coal mines; African Americans fleeing the racism of Jim Crow south; Japanese Americans who were relocated from incarceration camps after WWII; Bosnians and Eritreans fleeing from civil wars in their countries; and refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the wake of US intervention in Southeast Asia. These communities made Uptown their home. To some extent, they could do so because of the availability of affordable housing, such as Single Room Occupancy buildings (SROs), which provided an affordable home for transients, migrants, and working-class residents, costing just $350-500/month. Over the course of the last decade, however, Uptown has lost nearly half its SROs to market rate housing. Lawrence House is a prime example; it displaced over 372 SRO units that were converted to luxury apartments in 2013, with a 472 sq ft studio apartment now costing $1,738 per month.

Often seen as an anomaly in deeply segregated Chicago, Uptown was one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. Importantly, it was so because of what historians like Paul Siegel refer to as its “submerged traditions” of resistance in the wake of displacement and urban renewal efforts. For instance, when practices of arson for profit were deployed, Uptown people formed an informal youth brigade that put out these fires. When developers worked their connections to politicians, the people of Uptown sued the city, in the landmark Avery lawsuit, for colluding with developers to drive out the poor. When coal miners became ill from Black lung disease, they  formed the Chicago Black Lung Association and successfully fought for a clinic as well as benefits for miners and their dependents. When alarming rates of lead poisoning were discovered in children, the people of Uptown organized to hold landlords accountable, an effort that ultimately changed city regulations. As state surveillance and police brutality against communities of color ratcheted up, they organized, inter-racially, under the umbrella of the Original Rainbow Coalition, with the Illinois Black Panther Party organizing alliances with the Young Patriots Organization and Young Lords Organization. When Black families were segregated through race restrictive covenants and relegated to live on only one block of Winthrop Avenue, they  pushed back by creating a community of care. In short, even as Uptown was subject to various forms of urban renewal, the people have always fought back to assert their rights and fight for justice.

This history helps contextualize  the current efforts to fight against the latest effort at urban renewal in Uptown – the “development” of  luxury apartments on Weiss Hospital’s parking lot – and why community organizers and residents fervently opposed to it see it as a “tipping point.” Uptown is one of the few neighborhoods in Chicago that had the wealth of affordable housing options that it did in the past, precisely because of peoples’ efforts to push back. Sadly, many of these affordable units have been lost in recent years. In addition, it is also one of the few neighborhoods that is seeing its homeless population increase. As such, affordable housing is a crucial issue in Uptown, as Alderman Cappleman himself acknowledges, ironically presenting Uptown’s affordable housing stock as a model for other neighborhoods to replicate, even as he supports such efforts as the Weiss Hospital rezoning in order to build luxury housing. Notably, the arguments he presents in support of the Weiss property rezoning effort are both faulty and partial. 

First, the claim that building luxury apartments leads to the stabilization of rents and the protection of naturally occurring affordable housing is not what years of research tells us. What research tells us is that “overbuilt markets are not always cheaper ones. Contradicting the laws of supply and demand, several of the regions where the production of housing units was higher than the national average, such as Las Vegas, also experienced the greatest valuation bubbles.” Recent studies also show that even as there may be some research that suggests that market rate development may help stabilize rents, this is not a generalizable or universal fact; local contexts matter, and development projects are highly unpredictable. As the same study that noted this outlined, such development projects “could result in a net reduction of housing units…or  it could displace low-income households in exchange for only a modest increase in the housing supply.” A key context to consider, according to urban planners, is the community’s response to such a development. In the case of the proposed Weiss Hospital luxury development, engagement with the community clearly reveals marked opposition. Public commentaries sent to the Chicago Planning Commission cited concerns around the lack of racial diversity in the voting body and a problematic voting process in the 46th ward zoning committee that disallowed a  key voting member in the immediate vicinity of the hospital who clearly opposed this development from participating in the process while  permitting one voting member who does not live in the area to change their vote to support rezoning, after the meeting where votes were tallied.

Secondly, the argument that this development meets the City’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), with 2.5% of the units being designated “affordable,” omits the fact that this is the bare minimum standard. How can that be acceptable when an imminent new law will double the minimum affordable units required to 5.0%?

Third, the argument that the in-lieu payment that Lincoln Property is providing to Sarah’s Circle to build housing for homeless women is funding that could not otherwise be secured is not strictly true. According to an Uptown organization that is on the alderman’s zoning committee, Sarah’s Circle had two other avenues through which to secure funding to meet its goal and the payment by Lincoln Properties was not the only avenue to do so, as Alderman Cappleman maintains. As such, this cannot be used as an argument for building 300+ unaffordable units whose target audience are not even families, which is what Uptown needs, according to the alderman’s own 46th Ward Master Plan. Without a doubt, supporting Sarah’s Circle is important, but so is having on-site affordable housing. We ought to strive for doing both – supporting the work of Sarah’s Circle as well as providing on-site affordable housing and not put them in opposition to one another.

Fourth, the entities tasked with shepherding this development project   – Pipeline Health and Lincoln Property – evidence a problematic history that does not engender public trust. After pledging that it would not sell the three hospitals it had purchased in the Chicagoland area in 2019, Pipeline closed Westlake, a community hospital in Melrose Park six months later, with bankruptcy transcripts revealing Pipeline’s secret intention of closing the hospital as a condition of sale. And this, during a global pandemic when residents of Melrose Park desperately needed their community hospital. In addition, Pipeline’s partner in this transaction at Weiss Hospital – Lincoln Property – is a developer who was recently sued for racial discrimination in Texas. Although the plaintiffs eventually lost the case, the evidence presented raises questions about the intentions of this developer, not to mention its vetting process for selecting renters.

Finally, the building would develop lakefront property that is zoned for medical or research work, not residential use, thereby reducing what little remains of Uptown’s commons, while putting its healthcare and the community’s local economic future in danger. For all these reasons, why should the city put their trust in Pipeline and Lincoln Property given their questionable history, especially for a proposal that is not equitable, and meets only the bare minimum of affordability in a neighborhood with such a great need for affordable family housing? Why settle for less when so much is at stake? Surely, we can do better.

Anna Romina Guevarra is the founding director and associate professor of Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. She is an award-winning author on race, labor, migration, movement-building, transnational feminism, and an expert witness on asylum cases. She co-founded the project: Dis-Placements: A People’s History of Uptown, Chicago. Twitter @AnnaRGuevarra.

Gayatri Reddy is an associate professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago and currently a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. She is an award winning author on race, gender, sexuality, and health and an expert witness on asylum cases. She co-founded the project: Dis-Placements: A People’s History of Uptown, Chicago. Twitter @BigG_ji.