Chicago’s south side residents fear Obama Center will displace them | Chicago

For five years, Kiera Hardin lived on the 15th floor of an apartment building along South Shore Drive, within eyeshot of the Obama Presidential Center, a sprawling 19-acre area that will be home to a public library branch, playground, community centers and a museum.

It was her first apartment. She could smell Lake Michigan when she stepped outside and see the purple and orange skies as the sun rose and fell. But last summer her rent dramatically rose following renovations, and suddenly the 30-year-old program coordinator could no longer afford to live in her building. Hardin suspected that the building’s owners saw projections of how the neighborhood would change.

“Ultimately I had to move because I couldn’t afford it,” Hardin, campaign chair of the South Side CBA Coalition. “That’s literally my check. Who wants to spend all of their money to live?”

The Obama Presidential Center – which the former president’s foundation claims will bring $3.1bn in “economic impact” while it undergoes construction and for the first decade after it opens – has amplified fears among long-time residents in Chicago’s south side that economic boost will not reach them. Instead, they say, the $500m project could make their communities increasingly unaffordable and displace the neighborhood’s Black residents.

Organizers and advocates are calling for Chicago’s officials to institute protections for renters that would combat possible displacement. That would include funding toward home repairs, rental relief, the building of affordable housing on vacant city-owned lots, and eviction protection, among other measures.

They are also pushing a referendum on the February ballot in the city’s election asking voters whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the incoming alderman should support an ordinance to “prevent the displacement of renters, condo & home owners in South Shore in light of the impact of the Obama Center and growing development in the area”.

That leaves people like Hardin conflicted: she supports it because of what Obama means to Black people in Chicago like her grandmother. Still, the center should “serve a purpose” for those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods, not just for those who don’t.

Linda Jennings, 74, has seen South Shore, a predominantly Black neighborhood just south of the Obama center, transform over the last six decades. Jennings, a retired nurse who worked at the nearby University of Chicago medical center, has owned her condo since 2005. But every day, she says, she gets phone calls from real estate brokers asking her whether she would sell.

Her building, built in the 1920s, struggles with ageing infrastructure, particularly faulty water pipes and heating. She and other residents in her building fear that it could be sold to a buyer with enough money to redevelop the property, raising the property’s costs on its residents and pushing people out – a phenomenon that happened in the building next door.

Jennings noted that her property taxes have grown, despite her property value staying the same. “Because the neighborhoods are predominantly African American, their property values are always less than the rest of the city because of redlining. That hasn’t changed,” she says. “If my apartment was up north, it would be worth over $300,000.” It’s currently worth $120,000.

Organizers with the Obama Community Benefits Coalition, an alliance of community groups aimed at preventing displacement as a result of the Obama Center, managed to win protections for residents in a different neighborhood, Woodlawn, after a six-year campaign, and ushered in an affordable housing development. Now they’re trying to protect South Shore. The center, which was first announced in 2015, plans on opening to the public in 2025.

Dixon Romeo, executive director of Not Me We, a community mutual aid organization part of the CBA coalition lobbying for tenant protections, says the Obama Center will “exacerbate and accelerate” existing forces that already put pressure on the neighborhoods surrounding it to change.

Romeo, who grew up in South Shore, pointed to remarks the former president made at a public meeting in 2018 when asked about how the presidential center would “revitalize the South side without pushing out existing residents”.

In response, Barack Obama has said that the project’s overseers didn’t want it to displace residents, adding that they needed to balance bringing jobs and economy development to the area with preserving existing affordable housing.

“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,” Obama said at the time. “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.”

But Romeo and other South Shore residents argue that the signs of change are already here: property values in the South Shore grew 48% between October 2020 and 2021 in an area where 77% of residents are renters, according to 2019 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community. Organizations like the Preservation of Affordable Housing have had to purchase properties in South Shore and elsewhere to protect residents.

“When the president said, ‘Malia’s generation’s going to deal with gentrification on the South Side,’ that is factually not true in any other city,” Romeo says.

The 2019 study by the Voorhees Center also found that, in the two-mile radius around the Obama Center’s construction site, “there is clear evidence of rising rents in newly renovated and new construction units, which the majority of current renters cannot afford”.

And the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found that South Shore residents faced the highest evictions in Chicago. In 2019, it had an eviction filing rate of nearly 9%, roughly three times that of the city overall.

What’s more, construction around the center, which started in 2021, has heightened traffic problems, making it difficult for residents, particularly senior residents, to travel around their community.

Meanwhile, investors have swarmed the neighborhoods to purchase houses: the Illinois Answers Project, a local non-profit investigative news outlet, reported that investors bought nearly a third of houses in the zip code covering most of the South Shore area, more than twice as many as had been purchased in 2015. Just one other neighborhood – Englewood, also on the city’s South Side – had a similar percentage of investor purchases.

“We’re not against the Center, but we are against gentrification. We are against displacement,” Romeo says. “Our demands show there’s a way to have the Center without having displacement – or at least policies in place to mitigate it. Right now there are none.”

In nearby Woodlawn, the city agreed to a preservation resolution that, among other things, set aside 52 vacant lots for affordable housing.

Among the demands made in South Shore, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition called for the city to set aside city-owned vacant properties for affordable housing, allocate millions in immediate and annual rent relief for tenants, and “create and implement a Right to Return preference policy that prioritizes current and former longtime residents of South Shore in the awarding of any loans, grants, or subsidized units”.

Romeo argues that the city fails to communicate with residents so they don’t know what’s going on in their community. Lightfoot’s office has not responded to requests for comment.

Illinois currently bans rent control. Romeo says the city can act but their current representatives and mayor, Lori Lightfoot, “do not have or didn’t have the political will” to push policy interventions to combat future displacement. City officials, meanwhile, have argued that they have invested in preserving affordable housing in South Shore and providing financial assistance to renters and homeowners.

Hardin, meanwhile, moved to Washington Park where she was able to buy a condominium, which she couldn’t afford in South Shore. But she still hopes that the Obama Center will bring programming that connects with residents who already live in the community.

Hardin and Jennings pointed out up until the last few years, South Shore had been a food desert for a decade.

“For me, it would be disrespectful to the people who I love to say: ‘Don’t bring it,’” Hardin says. “I want it to be here. But I want it to be here for everyone, not just for people who own homes, not just people who are business owners. I want people who are able to rent to be able to stay.”

When Jennings looks around her neighborhood these days, she sees the difficulties for seniors like herself to navigate the ongoing construction. She sees the “privatization of public recreational space” as workers build in Jackson Park, a sprawling 551-acre park where the presidential center is being constructed, which residents say won’t necessarily benefit residents who already live in South Shore.

“I don’t have an issue with change. I was always against the Obama Center,” Jennings says, adding that she didn’t feel Obama had done enough for Black Americans, particularly when it comes to addressing the ways redlining affected neighborhoods like hers.

She acknowledges that other residents see the Obama Center as having the potential to be “the biggest boon for this part of the South Side”, that it could bring business investment in an area that historically has been disinvested.

But she still wants to stay. “I grew up in the neighborhood. I went to prom from this neighborhood. I raised my daughter in this neighborhood,” Jennings says.

“My life is South Shore. It’s always been South Shore. I don’t desire to live anywhere else.”

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