For low-income people, a lot of our time is taken up by jobs that don’t give paid time off, children who need attentive parents, and relationships that require work. The gaps are filled in with everything else life brings. There’s no time left over to go on a treasure hunt just to find an affordable place to call home. In the winter of 2012, my move to Chicago would set me on the path to have to do just that.
I traded in my MetroCard for a CTA pass and moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. There was a creative black community, my $750 rent was affordable, and I still had enough money to get bottom-shelf whiskey if I went out. A new job opportunity took me from the beauty of the Southside to an $800 gem in Humboldt Park.
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Things were going decently until the neighborhood — filled with “2 Flats,” an affordable Chicago housing staple — began to change. Moving trucks were constantly present, and I began to see a lot more white faces. A 2018 study from the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University states that due to gentrification, 2 Flats in neighborhoods like mine — which often house multiple generations — were being purchased and turned into single family homes, pushing out lower-income residents.
My building was purchased by a management company who slapped on a coat of fresh paint, put one washer/dryer set in the basement ($4 per load), and then slid a note under my door telling me they were raising my rent. Within three years, the rent went from $800 to $1,200. In August of 2017 I got another notice: the rent was going up to $1,475.
A single-person household in Chicago earning under $36,000 yearly is considered to be very low income — that was me. Factoring in transportation, bills, student loans, helping family, food and more, there was no way I could survive in this or many other Chicago neighborhoods. Survival included entertainment, such as seeing a film or treating myself to my favorite lunch spot, even though the world chastises poor people for trying to get moments of joy in our everyday lives.
I needed a place to live and fast. I had to stay in Chicago; I built a life here with relationships and a budding career. I couldn’t afford to start over. I scoured the internet and tucked away in the news tab of Google was an article about an initiative that I had never heard of. The Affordable Requirements Ordinance, as it’s called, requires developers to dedicate 10 percent of their units to affordable housing or pay into a low-income housing fund; most developments, unsurprisingly, opt to pay out. A new twist to the ordinance was being tested in the areas of Logan Square, Avondale, and West Town (The Hipster Triangle), along with some Near North/West areas. It required developers to commit 15 percent of new residential buildings to affordable rentals or build affordable housing within two miles of the development.
This sounded like my key to staying in Chicago, but getting that affordable housing would prove to be a difficult and time-consuming task. There was no list of participating properties, no one answered at the phone number I found, and the only contact email was for buyers of low-income units. I walked around the city and collected numbers from the temporary signage of 18 developing properties. With every phone call, my inquiries were met with exasperation, confusion, or false promises of a returned phone call.
After a few weeks, one building set me up with an interview to obtain an application. A leasing agent asked about my educational background, my work experience, and if I was in programs like LINK and Medicaid. I was being vetted to make sure I was the “proper” low-income resident. They didn’t want to make their wealthy future residents uncomfortable. They wanted someone who could not be clocked as poor on top of being black when they saw me checking my mail. After more interviews and massive amounts of paperwork that included a copy of my degree and character letters from my managers, I was offered a studio. I had played their game and three weeks later I moved in.
It’s not just the city that has a vendetta against its non-wealthy residents; it’s the surrounding suburbs as well. The 85 percent lily white and wealthy suburb of Tinley Park, for example, recently reached a settlement with the Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development after an affordable housing development that would have brought black and brown faces failed to get approval after being opposed by residents. This historically racist suburb is paying out over $2 million in damages. This didn’t happen on some very special episode of a 1960’s sitcom. This happened in real life in a place that is 45 minutes outside of Chicago.
Developers are cashing in when they pay into the aforementioned low-income housing fund instead of offering an affordable unit. They get about half of that $225,000 fee back in tax credits and that’s just one of the incentives the city offers; more than $4 million has gone missing from the fund. Chicago has to stop rewarding developers for opting out of helping the poor. These buildings need to increase the amount of units available to low-income people and be required to offer them, no buying your way out. They should then be required to help fund housing in forgotten communities, helping them to rebuild and thrive.
This Affordable Requirements Ordinance Pilot Project is one way to address housing affordability and segregation, but communication and access are key to making it work. A visit to the city’s website or an appointment at the local Department of Human Services should have residents well on their way to finding housing that they can afford and be proud to call home. Residents shouldn’t have to become a detective at the poorly proposed West Side police and fire academy to find proper housing.