Come February, Joy Aruguete will have been on the front lines of the battle for affordable housing for 25 years as CEO of Bickerdike Redevelopment. The work has been her calling, and the call for it has only intensified.
Over time, her nonprofit has changed its focus from a lack of investment in its target neighborhoods on the near Northwest Side to too much of it, a surge in luxury housing that has priced out people of modest means. She’s noted with some amazement that rents in Logan Square now can be higher than those in Lincoln Park. The trend has taken a toll on neighborhood diversity, the attribute that drew many people in the first place.
“The need for affordable housing is ever present,” she said. “We went from sort of disinvestment a few years back, to now a lot of different communities are feeling the pressure of rising real estate costs because so much that’s affordable is vanishing.”
Bickerdike, which dates from 1967, has completed work on more than 2,000 rental and for-sale units. But it’s now on its biggest growth spurt. Aruguete is gradually increasing the organization’s 80-person staff to deal with an expanding to-do list.
It is wrapping up the first phase of its redevelopment of the historic Lathrop Homes public housing development at Diversey Parkway and Clybourn Avenue. In partnership with Related Midwest, Heartland Alliance and the Chicago Housing Authority, Bickerdike is involved in a complete renovation that will turn Lathrop into a mixed-income complex of 1,116 units, 44% percent market rate and the rest either public housing or units at below-market rents for those who fall under an income cap. Bickerdike is handling community engagement, an important part of the formula for making affordable housing work well and gain acceptance from often hostile neighbors.
The organization also has entered a deal with the CHA for the renovation and expansion of its senior-oriented Wicker Park Apartments at 1414 N. Damen Ave. The 225-unit, two-building property will be renovated and the site will get 119 new units targeted to working class families. Bickerdike, along with private development firm Pennrose, aims to enliven the site by mixing generations.
And in the spring, Bickerdike plans to break ground on its own venture, a 100-unit project at 2638 N. Emmett St., marketed to lower-income families. With the location near Milwaukee and Kedzie avenues, the seven-story building will take the place of a former city-owned parking lot and feature a setback design that provides a two-story frontage along Emmett, closer to the busy street. Bickerdike received $1 city land and a commitment of up to $10.1 million from tax increment financing.
The Lathrop and Emmett Street projects touched a nerve in their areas. There were many community meetings and accusations back and forth. “I am always stunned at some of the things people allow themselves to say. I hope that they are remorseful after they say them,” Aruguete said. She said much criticism grew from old and outdated notions people have about subsidized housing.
At Bickerdike, the emphasis has been on property management and tenant engagement. One reason the Emmett Street project appealed to Aruguete, aside from it being a rare parcel of open land in Logan Square, was the project’s size allows for on-site management, which typically heads off problems. She said in developments that mix subsidized and unsubsidized rents, it’s important not to create an internal class system. At Lathrop, groups will be mixed not only within each building, but on each floor, with all the units meeting the same design standards.
“Any landlord is going to now and again have challenging tenants,” she said. “The difference between a well-managed building and perhaps not a well-managed building is how you deal with those problems.” In one case years ago, Bickerdike took on an apartment building that a street gang treated as its own, turning it into a community asset, Aruguete said.
The work can be daunting but with moments of validation, such as at Lathrop. “Some of the very people who opposed the project now live at Lathrop,” she said. “Once they see the good that a project does, they feel differently. … We never forget that people who oppose us, they’re going to be our neighbors when it gets built.”