Concerns surface that Woodlawn renovations will force out community members

By Carl Pickerill

The effort to revitalize Woodlawn, the University’s southern neighbor and home to University building’s including the Law School and Burton-Judson Courts, has sparked concern that an improved housing stock will drive up housing and rental prices, placing them out of some residents’ reach.

Working-class residents fear that the skyrocketing prices of townhomes and rental units will force them out of the market and into other neighborhoods. According to community members, the University, the Apostolic Church of God-the largest church in the area with 18,000 parishioners-and three major developers in conjunction with the city, have been the major catalysts of residential development.

“All of the housing [east of Cottage Grove] is more expensive than people in this area can actually afford,” said Gerald Ross, a resident of Woodlawn. “It’s unreasonable for a resident of this neighborhood to be buying a $250,000 home with an average annual salary of $20,000.”

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development confirmed that homes in the Woodlawn neighborhood have come with average price tags of $200,000, with the most expensive unit going for $379,000.

The Planning Department, which oversees the sale of lots to potential developers, stressed that their goal “is not to gentrify anybody, but instead to make houses affordable for local residents who may be interested in buying into the local community.”

Potentially, this includes faculty staff and students of the University. Hank Weber, vice-president of community and governmental affairs at the University, said there are a number of faculty and staff currently living in Woodlawn-many of them with University subsidization.

“Hundreds of our faculty live in or near the Woodlawn area, as we encourage our faculty to live close to the University,” Weber said in a phone interview. “Living in Woodlawn and Kenwood is an option for them to get cheaper rents and also to be subsidized by the University’s Faculty Employee Housing Program.”

Weber described the University’s interest in maintaining a good relationship with the Woodlawn community as a “vested one,” but warned about viewing the nature of the relationship antagonistically.

Other community members have also expressed concerns. Laura Singer, who heads the Living Room Cafe, a networking committee of eight social service agencies, said the housing shortage in Woodlawn represents a lack of affordable rental housing.

“I work with people who are at risk of homelessness, and I see that these people are getting pushed out of the neighborhood,” Singer said. “We keep hearing this term, ‘mixed income housing,’ but we’re not quite seeing the specific plans for including low income residents in the re-devlopment process.”

Singer mentioned a specific case in which one of her clients was told that the building in which she was renting an apartment would be converted into condos. Singer said the lady was “upset that she had to move outside the neighborhood and that her kids couldn’t stay in the neighborhood school.”

University employees-including Rudy Nimocks, director of the University Police Department, and Sonya Mulunda, assistant vice president and director of community affairs for the University-point to their participation in Woodlawn organizations as proof of the University’s interest in the community.

“We sit on various neighborhood boards not because we seek to control community organizations, but because many of the University employees who sit on the boards are residents of the community,” Nimocks said. “From a pragmatic standpoint it makes sense.”

Ross said he fears that many of the new townhomes and condominiums are being bought up by people not only from the University, but also by suburbanites who would like to move in closer to downtown. He mentioned specifically the Apostolic Church of God, where Bishop Arthur Brazier, the longtime south side leader and one of the founders of The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), holds service for some 18,000 parishiners.

“Naturally, people from those areas would be more qualified to purchase those pieces of property,” he said. “Brazier’s congregation is mostly suburban so they can afford to move into those places.”

From a real estate perspective, the buildings that are being converted to condos “have been empty for years,” said Margie Smigel, a real estate agent at Metro Pro Real Estate in Hyde Park.

“There have been some buildings with tenants in them that were converted into condos; but these have been buildings that were in really awful shape,” she said. “People were living in really awful conditions and these buildings were brought back to life.”

Smigel listed four condo conversion projects on 61st Street just south of the Law School where developers converted otherwise run down apartments to condominiums. She said she believes that the “big issues are not that people are being forced out. First you will see rehab and then new construction and that will be a major transformation.”

Georgiette Greenleaf-Finney, vice president of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WDCD), the development subsidiary of TWO, said she agrees that new development is “not in opposition to the general welfare of the community.”

“Quite frankly, we are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to market rate housing,” she said. “We are giving owners really nice homes that they can’t get for this price anywhere else in the city. This is also diversifying the economic base of the community.”

Greenleaf-Finney said WDCD manages several apartment units in buildings that are affordable and that social service programs provided in those buildings support families in the community.

She also claimed the construction of new townhomes has been minimal up to this point, claiming as evidence the 1600 market rate units built by TWO between 1970 and 1997 in contrast with an estimated 40 units of market rate homes built in the past 10 years.

The city envisions the Woodlawn residential redevelopment to include the creation of 140 market rate homes over the next few years, according to the Department of Planning and Development. It was unable to give a specific time table for the growth project, saying only that the plan consists of three phases, with 26 homes being built in the first phase and 114 homes being built in two subsequent phases of development.

The department confirmed that subsequent phases could feature homes with higher price tags than those built during phase one. WDCD along with the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation, and the Davis Group are the three developers of the 140 town homes, according to the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

But the major concerns of many residents extend beyond the construction of townhomes.

Lionel Richardson is president of the tenant council of Grove Parc Plaza, an apartment complex in the 6100 block of South Evans that accepts mainly voucher-holding tenants. He views the rapid destruction and conversion of low-rental housing with apprehension.

“It seems that they’re looking to fill the neighborhood strictly with middle-class people,” Richardson said.

Ross mentioned the condominiums that went up on 61st Street between University Avenue and Woodlawn Avenue. The condos replaced low-income rental units and now run for about $500-$600 per month.

“Most people in the neighborhood are accepting (increased middle class development), but we are not fools,” Ross said. “People from the suburbs are coming to get closer to downtown and the developers and various community groups see the need to capitalize on it.”