The Woodlawn Organization isn’t working

By Emily Alpert

Many University students maintain a privileged transience—spending a quarter in Paris, a summer at home, shuttling belongings in brown cardboard boxes from one apartment to the next. However, in Woodlawn, Hyde Park’s southern neighbor, longtime residents and new ones alike are facing unwanted moves, as the area’s remaining subsidized housing is illegally preyed upon by those organizations purported to protect it.

The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) is a Woodlawn-based nonprofit, founded in 1960, that manages a number of publicly subsidized housing projects. One of these housing projects is the five-building complex of Woodlawn Redevelopment #2, located around 62nd Street and Kimbark Avenue. In December 2004, building residents were told that they must evacuate the buildings by May. When, at a TWO meeting, the tenants asked why, the management said the buildings were to become condos. In giving the tenants less than a year’s notice, TWO violated Illinois’s Federally Subsidized Housing Preservation Act and caused the anxious relocation of tenants, including 30-year residents and fragile seniors, who feared a more forceful relocation in May.

The rabbit-hole goes deeper, though: In attempting to terminate the mortgage on the Kimbark properties, thus ending their status as subsidized housing and forcing the displacement of low-income residents, TWO is violating the terms of its section 8 contract, by which it administers the buildings. Why? Because the contract doesn’t expire until 2009. More suspect still, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that TWO has yet to provide payment on the mortgage, nor has it mentioned any plans for new condos. Why, then, is TWO in such a rush to clear out these tenants?

Unlike many globe-trotting students, most Woodlawn residents can’t just pick up a new sublet on Marketplace. Throughout the city, affordable housing is under siege, with over 16,000 subsidized units expected to be demolished or converted before 2010, a rapid increase from the 2,852 units culled from 1990 to 2000. Waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers—transferable credits for subsidized housing—are currently 56,000 people long, and such vouchers aren’t accepted everywhere. Waiting lists for fully subsidized public housing are even worse, at 77,000 families long. Meanwhile, Woodlawn’s recent flurry of construction—the highest rate since the 1930s—is largely out of poor residents’ reach, as sleek new condos and single-family homes breeze into the neighborhood.

TWO claims it’s “building a viable and healthy community” as it uproots Woodlawn’s seniors and families—a contradiction that should discredit its claims to stand for the people of Woodlawn. Yet TWO is one of three partners in the New Communities Project (NCP), a MacArthur Foundation grant intended to revitalize urban communities through retail, green space and (allegedly) affordable digs. The other two partners are WPIC (the Woodlawn Preservation and ;nvestment Corporation, another, more recently founded, nonprofit) and a cozy little liberal arts institution called the University of Chicago. As TWO works to purge the low-income from Woodlawn, it can hardly be trusted with the community’s purse strings. And if the University accepts it as a bona fide representative of Woodlawn’s interests, what credibility would it enjoy with the community?