Obama Presidential Center. Photo by Max Blaisdell
Obama Presidential Center. Photo by Max Blaisdell

While much of the attention on the night of February 28 was on the outcome of the mayoral race, Dixon Romeo, founder and executive director of the housing advocacy group Not Me We and his network of fellow activists and volunteers, watched from the Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) office on 61st Street and St. Lawrence Avenue to see if their two referenda had passed after a long day canvassing through South Shore and Woodlawn.

“We are constantly meeting people in the course of our work facing rent increases, who are concerned about rent increases, who saw the building across the street from them get converted and [are] worried about what happened to them, who are worried about tax increases that they can’t afford,” said Brandon Patterson, a housing organizer for Not Me We who canvassed that day.

Their referendum in South Shore called on the future 5th Ward alderperson and mayor, both of whom will be decided on by Chicagoans in the April 4 runoff election, “to prevent the displacement of renters, condo and homeowners in South Shore in light of the impact of the Obama Center” by passing a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) ordinance that would create more affordable housing and also provide protections to renters, owners, and condo owners.

A referendum, or ballot question, can become an organizing tool to demonstrate public opinion on a given issue. In all, eighty-eight percent of South Shore residents voted in support of a CBA ordinance. A similar referendum in Woodlawn pressed the mayor’s office and City Council to abide by the provisions of the 2020 Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance and passed with a comparably high level of community support. 

The two referenda are non-binding, meaning the future mayor and 5th Ward alderperson—either Desmon Yancy or Martina “Tina” Hone, who will face off in the April 4 runoff—can ignore them should they wish, but they show strong public support for more affordable housing at a time when candidates are still actively seeking votes. 

The coalition fighting for the CBA for South Shore, of which No Me We and STOP are a part, is also composed of three other groups: Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), of which current 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeannette Taylor was a prominent member before taking office; Black Youth Project 100’s Chicago Chapter (BYP100), which has also been involved in demonstrations against the new police academy on the West Side; and UChicago Against Displacement, a group that includes current and former students of the university. 

The Obama CBA Coalition’s comprehensive demands for South Shore feature many of and are indeed modeled provisions in Woodlawn’s housing ordinance, especially ones targeting the neighborhood’s specific housing needs in light of the Obama Presidential Center’s (OPC) groundbreaking in 2021. 

Three quarters of the neighborhood’s residents are renters and half are rent-burdened, meaning they spend most of their income on rent. 

“People with the lowest incomes can’t afford housing in the private market,” Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois, said. “This is an example of market failure where just the basic cost of building and maintaining and operating an average rental apartment…if you’re doing it to make a profit, you have to charge higher rent than what people with the lowest incomes can afford, which is why we need government investment to create more affordable rental housing.”

And with investors purchasing almost a third of homes in South Shore, almost twice as many as they had bought in 2015 when the OPC site was first announced, many fear that rents will get even less affordable.

“There are certain landlords that want to keep long-time tenants and so forth and don’t increase rents or only do modest increases. But certainly, though, when you have new property owners who don’t have those relationships, they’re likely to just increase the rent to whatever the market will bear.”

South Shore currently has only six affordable housing developments with a total of 412 units, while nearby Woodlawn has seventeen similar developments with 764 units. This is despite the fact that South Shore has a population more than double Woodlawn’s.

Approving more people on the waiting list for subsidized housing, also known as Section 8 vouchers, is another effective way to keep renters in South Shore from being priced out by rent increases, according to Palmer and other experts who study housing affordability, because the amount they pay remains fixed at thirty percent of their income.

Of the 41,000 voucher holders in Chicago, nearly 3,500 live in South Shore already, which is the most of any neighborhood in the city, according to 2019 data. 

While the Coalition’s South Shore specific demands do not include expanded housing choice vouchers because that program is subject to the federal government’s control, they include a loan fund to purchase and covert broken down vacant properties into affordable housing units, and a grant for long-term South Shore home and condo owners to fix up and maintain their properties. The coalition also asks for an expansion of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase program which would allow tenants to form an association, make an offer on the property, and access financing to buy their building before a landlord can sell it to an outside party.

Other demands are wider in scope, like offering benefits to renters citywide, such as: a cap on rental and application fees, a right to return when a tenant is displaced from a unit while code compliant repairs are being made, a publicly accessible rental registry that would help identify vacancy and rental rates, and a tenants advocacy office that would help them better understand and enforce their rights against delinquent or exploitative landlords. 

This set of demands were based on the examples of other major cities that have experienced considerable gentrification in recent decades like San Francisco, Washington D.C., Portland, and New York City.

Organizers began seeking a CBA following the announcement in 2015 that an Obama library would be located in Jackson Park. They originally sought an agreement with the Obama Foundation directly so that the planned development would bring benefits to then-residents of the South Side and not just future ones.

This ask echoed the words of former President Obama himself, when he spoke to a crowd at a public meeting in Chicago in 2018, “Those are the kinds of plans, activities, foresight that we have to have in order to get that perfect balance: revitalizing and renewing the community but also making sure that people who are already living there are benefiting from it.”

But in the same speech, Obama also said, “We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification. Malia’s kids might have to worry about that. Right now, what we’ve got to worry about is you have broken curbs, and trash and boarded up buildings, and that’s really what we need to work on,” downplaying activists’ concerns about displacement.

Obama’s idea that Black South Siders need not fear being pushed out of neighborhoods adjacent to the OPC for a generation or two set the tone for what were ultimately unproductive discussions between organizers and the Obama Foundation.

In the face of its unwillingness to sign a CBA, organizers changed tack and began seeking an ordinance from the City of Chicago that would have covered residents anywhere within five miles of the planned location, including both South Shore and Woodlawn. 

In the course of those negotiations, however, this was whittled down to cover only Woodlawn, leaving out highly vulnerable areas like South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing which are also adjacent to the park where the OPC development is underway. These areas were left unprotected by that ordinance, which included a number of measures for affordable housing for renters and assistance for financially distressed homeowners. This was not because the coalition had acceded to the City’s arguments that only Woodlawn merited affordable housing protections—rather, this reflected their strategic calculation to come back and fight another day. 

The coalition’s current focus on securing an ordinance for South Shore has been held up by the recalcitrance of retiring 5th Ward alderwoman Leslie Hairston, who, according to Savannah Brown, housing organizer for STOP, pulled “the neighborhood out at the last minute.” 

When the coalition met with officials from the Department of Housing, they expressed no qualms with the organizers’ listed demands, but said that they needed the backing of the mayor to support the passage and implementation of the ordinance. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, deferring to long-held custom not to pass legislation that affects a single ward without the alderperson’s approval, asked for Hairston’s blessing, which she would not give despite making promises on housing when she was last running for reelection in 2019. Instead, she said organizers were staging displacement “theater.” 

Romeo, of Not Me We, cited peer reviewed studies and data. “The Department of Housing, University Illinois Chicago, DePaul University, the University of Chicago all have come out and said there’s a housing issue in South Shore,” he said. 

“[An] eviction tracker shows that right now the Fifth Ward is the number one ward for evictions,” Romeo continued. “If it is theater, what is the role that she is playing in this play?” 

Data from the Law Center for Better Housing reveals that South Shore had 1,741 evictions filed in 2019, ranking it first out of Chicago’s 77 community areas. The amount of back rent sought in those cases averaged only $2,174, or about two months’ rent, an amount that relief from the city or state could reasonably step in to provide. 

In fact, the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is already helping South Shore residents struggling to make rent, giving out 1,050 grants totaling $8.5 million—more than any other zip code in the city—but it is not clearly not enough given that South Shore still has the highest level of evictions filed for service in 2022, according to the Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago.

One of the reasons why people in South Shore are so often evicted is that they overwhelmingly represent themselves pro se—only 8.7% of tenants can afford to hire attorneys—whereas the landlords they go up against in court are almost always lawyered up, 94.2% of the time. This suggests that the lack of legal aid for renters in South Shore is also a major issue and why an office of the tenant advocate could be an important step. 

Not all South Shore residents agree with all of the CBA Coalition’s demands, however. Val Free, executive director at the Neighborhood Network Alliance, strongly opposes the construction of more affordable rental units in South Shore. “We’re not lacking any affordable housing.” 

“Condominium owners are the most vulnerable people in the neighborhood,” according to Free, and thus, resources should be devoted to helping them instead of renters, she said.

Free lived in the Parkways, a Section 8 housing project facing Jackson Park, until May of last year. She has no nostalgia about living in public housing. “If you interviewed anyone in the Parkways, they would tell you they would not want to see another [public housing development].”

After twenty years, Free was only too happy to move out, despite raising a son there and successfully organizing a tenant association to get rid of problematic property management staff. She now rents in the neighborhood, although she is in the process of purchasing a condo.

Her nonprofit seeks to increase homeownership in South Shore by providing workshops and support to transition renters into prospective home and condo buyers. Just last November, the Alliance and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago hosted a housing fair in South Shore that was free and open to the public as part of their ongoing work.

To help prevent what happened with Hairston from happening again with the next 5th Ward alderperson, Not Me We held a forum where nine candidates expressed their commitment to or against a CBA ordinance with or without modifications.

5th Ward Candidate Forum. Photo by Davon Clark.

Candidate Desmon Yancy, a South Shore resident who came in first in the February 28 election with twenty-six percent  of the vote, expressed unqualified support for the CBA ordinance as is and promised to introduce such legislation in his first 100 days in office if elected. 

“People who say it’s not as pertinent an issue should see the number of South Shore residents who supported a CBA on election day,” said Yancy. 

Martina “Tina” Hone, who placed second in the February 28 election with 18.7 percent, was more qualified in her support. She argued that the CBA coalition’s demand that one-hundred  percent of units on City-owned vacant lots be set aside for affordable housing would deter development. The number she’d like to see is thirty percent instead. 

Additionally, Hone contended that the vacant lots shouldn’t only be reserved for housing—small businesses, restaurants, and infrastructural improvements could make good use of that space, too. However, she commended the work of organizers, saying, “There are principles in that CBA that should be citywide.” 

“I pledge if I’m elected, to sort of take those pieces and work with colleagues in City Council to get citywide protections.”

Although Yancy conceded that a lot of the demands specifically for South Shore should be in place for all Chicagoans, he views South Shore residents as a priority, given that construction of the OPC is already underway. He added that the ordinance would offer the City the opportunity to pilot certain programs that could later be made available to residents in all neighborhoods. 

When asked about the possible difficulty of passing such a housing ordinance if Paul Vallas ends up in the mayor’s office, Yancy replied, “The needs of the community don’t change regardless of who ends up as mayor, whether it’s Vallas or Johnson.”

Hone expressed a similar level of urgency about South Shore’s housing needs: “I know it’s not ethnic cleansing, but there’s…socioeconomic cleansing that seems to be going on and we can’t allow that to happen.”

“I want to really restore the sense of community that was like the Black communities that I grew up in, where we were all together,” Hone said. “South Shore could be a shining example of how to have a community that’s predominantly African-American but mixed income so that we can all thrive and have examples of folks to aspire to.”

For now, the CBA Coalition is watching the outcomes of the mayoral and 5th Ward aldermanic races scheduled for April 4 and remains in contact with the candidates. After that date, they intend to host large public meetings to make evident to whichever candidate wins, be it Brandon Johnson or Paul Vallas, Desmon Yancy or Tina Hone, that the community will hold them accountable if they do not take dramatic steps to alleviate the yearslong housing issues in South Shore.

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Max Blaisdell is an educator and basketball coach based in Hyde Park. He is originally from New York City and later served in Peace Corps Morocco. He last covered the 20th Ward race for the Weekly.

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  1. I’m baffled that President Obama doesn’t step in, use his influence to get a CBA for both Woodlawn and South Shore. CBA’s are not a new idea – we’ve had them for years, decades. If Obama wants his Presidential center to be successful, he needs to work with the community. CBA Now.

  2. Enforcement of Building Code regulations and focusing on infrastructure repairs in South Shore is essential.

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