November 11, 2008

Olympics bid could exacerbate city housing problems, gentrification

The Organization of Black Students hosted a discussion Monday to examine the impact that the Olympics Games could have on housing, one of many human rights–related issues being raised as Chicago bids to host the games in 2016.

The event featured Claire Mahon, a senior researcher for the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, an organization that investigates the impact of major events on housing problems. She is the primary author of a recently published report, “Fairplay for Housing Rights,” which was designed to instruct countries, cities, and individuals invested in hosting the Olympics.

“The Olympic Games are a catalyst for what is already going on,” Mahon said in an opening statement, stressing that preexisting problems in host cities can be exponentially exacerbated by the games. These problems include displacement due to construction of venues and gentrification, disproportionately detrimental affects on already marginalized communities, limited transparency, and a deadline-oriented mentality that allows for regulatory measures to be minimized, Mahon said.

“We think Chicago is a fabulous opportunity,” she said, qualifying that her message wasn’t entirely pessimistic. “Think about what areas and opportunities there are for improving this wonderful city, to make it a world-class city for all people who live in it and not just a few.”

In addition to improving the city, Chicago’s bid could change the way the Olympics are managed by highlighting the importance of housing rights and other human rights issues, Mahon said. She added that the goal is plausible if Chicago immediately starts to make its Olympic bid socially sustainable.

“The one thing that really worked in other cities was the power of community activism,” she said, when asked how host cities have improved over the years.

As for University involvement, Mahon recommended that students and faculty work together with local community leaders to be active, aware, and to enforce accountability. It is important to look at the failures of cities as distant as Beijing and as near as Atlanta, because they are surprisingly alike in their treatment of lower income groups, Mahon said.

“What you do really can change the shape of Chicago as a city [as well as] how it reacts to the Olympic games,” she said.