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Residents worried about displacement by Obama Center call on Lightfoot for more affordable housing

Obama CBA Coalition wants 75% of city-owned vacant lots in Woodlawn be dedicated for construction of affordable housing.

Ebonee Green, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100 and the Obama Center CBA Coalition, calls for more affordable housing in Woodlawn during a press conference at a “tent city” activists erected on a vacant lot at East 63rd Street and South Blackstone Avenue, Thursday morning, June 11, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Ebonee Green, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100 and the Obama Center CBA Coalition, calls for more affordable housing in Woodlawn.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Advocates for affordable housing in Woodlawn erected about a dozen tents on a city-owned lot Thursday demanding Mayor Lori Lightfoot revise an ordinance to prevent people from being displaced by the incoming Obama Presidential Center.

The goal of taking over the vacant lot at 63rd Street and Blackstone Avenue was to show the faces of people who still live in the neighborhood and call for access to quality housing at an affordable rate. Organizers held “teach-ins” for the community inside the tent city, played music, gave out free lunch and concluded with a march.

Ebonee Green, an organizer with BYP100 and the Obama CBA Coalition, said people shouldn’t forget that high-end development is still happening in Woodlawn despite the world seemingly shutting down due to the coronavirus.

“We know that on most of those empty lots there will be luxury development, but we want to make sure that when all of these beautiful luxury things come that we have a place here,” said Green, a longtime Woodlawn resident. “Right now, the mayor proposes a plan that does not protect all of us.”

Green said the CBA coalition is asking that 75% of city-owned vacant lots in Woodlawn be dedicated for the construction of affordable housing that will benefit the neighborhood’s longtime residents. A year ago, the group wanted all lots turned into affordable housing.

She also said proposed affordable housing must go beyond studio apartments and include housing units that can fit whole families.

“We are looking to protect families, so we want to make sure that written in the ordinance are two- and three-bedroom units,” Green said. “We don’t think that is too much, we don’t think we are asking for the world, but we’re asking for something to make sure that our people can stay here when this place becomes something that is almost unrecognizable.”

Fran Tobin, 59, of Rogers Park, volunteers with the Obama Center CBA Coalition and helps erect a “tent city” on a vacant lot at East 63rd Street and South Blackstone Avenue to call for more affordable housing in Woodlawn, Thursday morning, June 11, 2020.
Fran Tobin, 59, of Rogers Park, a volunteer with the Obama Center CBA Coalition, helps erect a “tent city” on a vacant lot at East 63rd Street and South Blackstone Avenue.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

For months Lightfoot has received pushback from organizers and more progressive city council members for introducing watered-down housing protections in Woodlawn instead of negotiating changes to the community benefits ordinance introduced last year.

Jeanette Taylor (20th) has been an outspoken critic of the mayor when it comes to housing and the Obama Presidential Center. She said her community is grateful to have the center, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of its longtime residents.

Under Lightfoot and the Department of Housing’s plan, Taylor said, only 60 homeowners out of 10,000 will benefit from the plan and only 45 affordable apartments will be available for those who make up to $60,000. The median household income in Woodlawn is just over $25,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“As a city who is now saying ‘We want to protect folks, we want to help them,’ be clear about who they [are] going to help,” Taylor said. “They are not talking about folks who look like me and you. They are not talking about people who make less than $60,000.”

Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) came to the camp to show his support for those fighting for affordable housing. His ward is facing similar fights against housing displacement.

“We’re tired to see the city continue with plans without including those that are affected by the plan. We continue to see displacement in our communities. We continue to see homelessness. We continue to see the lack of affordable housing,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

“But more than anything else we continue to see an administration who’s not willing to sit at the table with the leaders of our community.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.