Rent Control, Affordable Housing, and the Bloomingdale Trail

On the corner of Central Park and Wabansia, new townhomes were built blocks from the Bloomingdale Trail. (zillow.com)
On the corner of Central Park and Wabansia, new townhomes sit blocks from the Bloomingdale Trail. (zillow.com)

By Lynda Lopez 

The Bloomingdale Trail opened this weekend and it was a bittersweet experience riding my bike along it. It’s beautiful and as someone that loves to bike-ride, it’s going to be a great amenity. However, I can’t help but also be overwhelmed with the negative implications. As I looked around it, it seemed to be so much grander than the simple green space community residents once envisioned for the abandoned rail line. Rather than catering to local residents, it’s been branded as a way to attract tourism and high-end development. I overheard conversations of people that said they had come in from Skokie and Schaumburg just to be part of the opening celebration. For a community with a large percentage of low-income residents, what does this attractive new trail mean for their future in the area?

The Chicago Reader, Redeye, and the Chicago Tribune are just a few of the local media organizations that have written about the potential gentrification to come from the Bloomingdale Trail. The concerns are not unfounded as a similar project in New York City called the High Line has been a driving force in the gentrification of West Chelsea in Manhattan. In an article about the High Line’s gentrifying force, Jeremiah Ross writes, “This is good news for the elite economy but not for many who have lived and worked in the area for decades. It’s easy to forget that until very recently, even with the proliferation of art galleries near the West Side Highway, West Chelsea was a mix of working-class residents and light-industrial businesses.” The High Line’s aftermath has led many to wonder how to prevent further “eco-gentrification” from projects meant to provide green space for working-class residents. Meanwhile, we are already starting to see the impact locally in Chicago as developers seek to profit off the new amenity on the northwest side. A few weeks ago, Humboldt Park residents and allies rallied against the mass eviction of long-time residents from a building at 1627 N. Humboldt. The landlord subsequently doubled the rent and is now advertising it on craiglist as a “biker’s dream” and “right off the Bloomingdale Trail.”

With the history of the High Line and Chicago’s encroaching gentrification in mind, residents of Humboldt Park and Logan Square are launching a campaign to prevent displacement along the Bloomingdale Trail. Grassroots Illinois Action and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association are just two of the groups calling for a property tax abatement district to protect homeowners along the trail. Protecting homeowners from property tax increases is just one way to mitigate the trail’s effects in the area. Local aldermen have expressed their support for this type of policy and have introduced other ideas, such as protecting existing 2-flats with affordable housing near the trail. The solutions proposed aren’t all encompassing, but they are a start to the affordability crisis in our city’s housing market. While the Bloomingdale Trail is the focus of the campaign, the issues surrounding it are merely symptoms of a citywide inability to protect renters from rising costs and to provide sufficient affordable housing.

The Chicago Reporter recently reported that more than half of renters in Chicago are paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent, an amount that a federal guideline has defined as unaffordable. Many homeowners are also paying more than they can afford on mortgage payments, insurance and utilities. With the overburdened nature of housing for city residents, a small increase in rent or property taxes might mean residents may no longer be able to live in a gentrifying community. This is only exacerbated by the fact that Chicago has no rent increase cap. In 1997, the Springfield General Assembly passed a law – the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act – that keeps localities statewide from enacting rent control laws. If you aren’t on a lease, your landlord can arbitrarily double your rent from one month to the next. All the landlord needs to do is give you a 30-day notice. Destabilizing the lives of residents is deemed simple by law. Some landlords may genuinely feel like they need to raise the rent to cover rising property taxes. A steep increase, however, usually seems to coincide with a real estate developer interested in profiting from an area rising in popularity.

Along with the freedom the market allows for landlords to raise rent, there is also very little political will to build affordable housing throughout the city. With the teardown of public housing over the last few decades came very little replacement housing. While the need is obviously there, the Chicago Housing Authority is sitting on millions of dollars meant for affordable housing. Meanwhile, our politicians provide an easy pathway for developers wanting to build luxury housing.

“Building a New Chicago” signs are all across Chicago, but some wonder who this new Chicago is meant for. (cityofchicago.org)

The “Twin Towers” project in Logan Square is the perfect example. The future 12-and 11-story towers at 2293 N. Milwaukee are going to be inaccessible to most low-income and working-class residents as proposed rents are $1,250 to $2,500 for a mix of studio to 2-bedroom apartments. Out of 213 rental units, less than 30 have been set aside as affordable. Despite the obvious need for more affordable housing in a gentrifying community, the local alderman fervently supported the project to the dismay of hundreds of residents. This makes absolutely no sense. With this in mind, it is no wonder our city is gentrifying. Our elected officials continuously show that the priority is providing benefits for the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

If the city starts prioritizing affordable housing and institutes a rent cap–despite statewide challenges–we may be able to maintain some level of socioeconomic diversity in our city. There are many other approaches to combatting these issues, such as protections against condominium conversions and developing community land trusts. While growing income inequality and decreasing wages are some of the underlying forces driving gentrification (which is why we need the Fight for 15), we need a strong citywide housing movement that counteracts the powers that displace the poor for the sake of “Building A New Chicago.” Otherwise, the future of this city looks to be a swath of wealth surrounded by immense poverty.

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