Dr. King and his wife Coretta at a third-floor walkup apartment in North Lawndale in Chicago in 1966 Credit: photo from Lawndale Christian Development Corporation

In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought his nonviolent revolution to Chicago. Invited by the Chicago Freedom Movement, Dr. King joined dozens of civil rights organizations demanding better living conditions for the Black community.

Schemes to maintain housing segregation, such as redlining and racially restrictive covenants, created the infamous ghettos that became the most visible legacy of the Great Migration.

Facing strong opposition to fair and open housing, Dr. King declared, “if we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country.” The months-long campaign reached a violent conclusion with marches in hostile white neighborhoods that forced Mayor Richard J. Daley to reach an agreement that would move toward making Chicago an open city, but promises made were never fulfilled.

Since then, much has changed and stayed the same in the struggle for fair and equitable housing.

COVID and Economic Pressures

Most Blacks live today, as they did more than half a century ago, on the South and West Sides, where overcrowding is a persistent burden of residential segregation. For example, a 1934 census estimated that Black households contained 6.8 people on average, whereas white households contained 4.7. Immigration to Chicago has also been another pressure of overcrowding, as newcomers, first from rural Europe and later Latin America also sought affordable housing and jobs.

As a result of continued confinement to delineated areas, more and more people tried to fit into converted “kitchenette” and basement apartments. Additionally, economic downturns forced families avoiding homelessness to double up with relatives, creating “multigenerational households.”

Chicago’s housing crisis has been a systemic issue for decades but has been exacerbated by the unprecedented impact of COVID-19. As a result, low-income households have been spending more than half of their income on rent, leaving many renters to sacrifice other necessities to afford their housing.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has just really laid bare deeper systemic issues in terms of the need for more affordable housing in Chicago and statewide,” said Allen Hailey, Director of Development and Communications of the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing (LCBH). This is especially the case of Black and Latinx communities, historically at the brunt of the eviction crisis. The LCBH’s 2018-2019 Chicago Eviction Data report shows that the eviction filing rate in Black communities is five times higher than in predominantly white neighborhoods, while the filing rate in Latinx communities is twice as much as those in white areas. This trend has been consistent from 2010 to 2019, which shows an apparent racial disparity in eviction filing even before the pandemic, reports The Red Line Project.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has been enacting changes to the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance and rolling out a $1 billion package in public and private funds to create and preserve affordable housing.

“While there is this increase of supply in affordable housing, a lot of these units that are initially intended for low and moderate-income Chicagoans are still out of reach for many Black and Latino families,” Anna Arzuaga, Housing Policy Analyst for the Latino Policy Forum told The Chicago Reporter. Arzuaga adds that affordable housing initiatives are typically concentrated in South and West Side neighborhoods and must expand to higher-income areas that have kept communities of color out due to discriminatory practices.

Responses to Housing Crisis

As the need for affordable housing increases across Chicago, one solution is to work with public and private partners. Jeff Head, vice president of development at Chicago-based The Habitat Company’s Affordable Group, points Ogden Commons in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood as an example.

The $200 million multi-phase, multi-use, a mixed-income project brought together The Habitat Company, Sinai Health, Cinespace Chicago Film Studio, and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). 80 percent of the 300 rental units are said to be earmarked as affordable housing.

Head also cites 43 Green, where his firm collaborated with P3 Markets, which works in public-private partnerships. The three-building, 300-unit mixed-income, mixed-use development is the first of its scale in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 40 years, with half the units marked as affordable.

Existing, obsolete buildings offer another promising and sustainable option for affordable housing. “By using older buildings, these projects typically end up being more cost-effective in the long run than new construction,” said Allison Fronczak, a Chicago native studying sustainable architecture at Arizona State University. “The properties themselves typically cost less, and while updating the buildings to meet modern standards can be expensive, the investment is still usually less pricey because the groundwork is already there.”

Another idea is modular homes. In Chicago, Structured Development, a company specializing in developing urban properties, used Kinexx Modular Construction’s modules for its Harrison Row Townhomes in East Garfield Park. This helped reduce construction time to 90 days, says Mike Drew, principal of Structured Development. According to the National Association of Realtors, the company is working with the nonprofit Chicago Housing Trust to supply housing to buyers who qualify for one of the 28 units in Phase 2.

Chicago’s Department of Housing reports a 120,000 difference between households that need affordable housing options and actual affordable housing units available.

The pandemic and inflation have intensified the worsening housing crisis that is in some instances as dire in communities of color today as when Dr. King joined movements to close the gap between those who can and can’t afford adequate housing.

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