Losing confidence

Mattie Butler, executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors, wants to see the Woodlawn Organization do more to preserve the neighborhood's stock of affordable rental apartments like those in this South Rhodes Avenue building. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Mattie Butler, executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors, wants to see the Woodlawn Organization do more to preserve the neighborhood's stock of affordable rental apartments like those in this South Rhodes Avenue building. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

In 1960, activists, neighborhood residents and local ministers formed what would become The Woodlawn Organization to battle racial discrimination and a city government that seemed unresponsive to the South Side neighborhood’s needs. “The neighborhood was going down,” said Edward Grady, a longtime employee of The Woodlawn Organization.

“Absentee landlords and slumlords were coming into Woodlawn buying up property. The people with the jobs were moving out to the suburbs,” he said. “So The Woodlawn Organization came in, and started building low-income housing for people.”

Over the years, The Woodlawn Organization, or TWO as it is often called, has provided a number of services including job training, drug rehabilitation, day care and prenatal care. And the group organized residents on issues of neighborhood concern, particularly the southward expansion of the University of Chicago.

In recent years, however, TWO has worked more closely with the University of Chicago and the developers of new townhouses and condominiums. And, with the median price of a Woodlawn condo at $165,000, some residents have accused TWO of abandoning its mission to serve the disenfranchised, leaving the neighborhood’s poor at the mercy of developers.

“People who live here see [the new housing] as doom and gloom,” said Mattie Butler, a Woodlawn resident and executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors. “Because they know that they’re not going to be able to live here when all is said and done. They won’t be able to afford it.”

A Chicago Reporter analysis of census data and owner-occupied home loans shows that Butler may be right. Since 2000, the typical Woodlawn home buyer has earned far more than longtime residents.

While 59 percent of Woodlawn households earned below $25,000 in 1999, just 5 percent of owner-occupied, single-family home loans in the neighborhood from 2000 to 2003 went to individuals in that income bracket, according to the Reporter’s analysis. Another 66 percent of the loans went to those earning more than $50,000 a year.

This has left some longtime Woodlawn residents feeling excluded from the rebirth of this old neighborhood. Last summer, neighborhood activists and residents marched along 63rd Street protesting TWO and developers for the high-priced homes, which residents fear are the signs of an attempt to drive poor residents out of Woodlawn. “[TWO leaders have] been quietly reducing the amount of affordable housing in their inventory for a number of years,” Butler said.

Residents also called several meetings last year with the Chicago office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They complained that TWO wanted to end the use of federal housing subsidies at some of its apartment buildings and deliberately neglected repairs at the buildings. “When the whole displacement issue got started, that’s when people started to come out and organize,” said Woodlawn resident Ebonee Stevenson.

However, TWO officials said the organization’s goal is to create a mixed-income community.

“Poor people are never going to go away, but you can’t build a neighborhood for poor people because the neighborhood won’t survive,” said Grady. “Businesses won’t come into a community where people don’t have the money to support them. You have to have a mixed-income neighborhood for community survival.”

In order to develop that mix, Darnell Bonds, who manages one of TWO’s federally subsidized apartment buildings, said that the community organization is focused on bringing economic diversity to the neighborhood with housing for poor and middle-income families. “Traditionally, we’ve developed housing for the low-income community, and now we are developing housing for the middle incomes that range from $30,000 to $75,000 [a year],” he explained.

Butler said more middle-class families could balance the community, but she questions whether the arrival of these families will leave room for the neighborhood’s poor. “They want affordable [housing] but not the way we’re talking about affordable,” she said. “We’re talking about affordable for people who [earn] zero to $25,000.”

Stevenson said many of the concerns about TWO resulted from the organization’s attempts to end federal rent subsidies for Woodlawn Redevelopment #2, a group of five buildings along Kimbark Avenue and 62nd Street. TWO owns the buildings and manages them through its development arm, the Woodlawn Community Development Corp.

In November 2004, TWO sent letters to the buildings’ residents, notifying them of the community organization’s intent to pay off its federal loan and end its mortgage agreement by May 2005. As the owner of the buildings, TWO would then have the same options as any private owner of multi-unit buildings—offering subsidies through another program, renting the apartments without subsidies, converting the apartments into condominiums, or selling the building.

However, TWO officials have since renewed the contract for federal housing subsidies until 2009. Beyond that point, the future of the buildings and the subsidies is unclear. And, without the subsidies, many of the residents there would have to move, Stevenson said.

Bonds, the building manager, said residents will still be eligible for low-income housing assistance, which could be provided through other subsidy programs. “It will still be a development for low-income housing, but we’re not sure what kind of program it’s going to be under,” he said. “We have the option of opting out of the [HUD] contract and provide housing under a different program.”

Carole Millison, president of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, TWO’s development arm, said she is not sure what would happen once the contract expires, but residents would not be left out in the cold. “We would make sure that the residents would have a home,” she said.

The building’s residents positioned themselves to take action by forming the Kimbark Tenants Association in September, according to members of the Student/Tenant Organizing Project, a group of former and current University of Chicago students and Woodlawn residents. In 2004, the group began fighting the loss of subsidized housing in the neighborhood.

By forming a tenants’ council, residents will have the first option to buy the building once the HUD contract ends, according to the Illinois Federally Assisted Housing Preservation Act.

But some believe preserving the subsidies is the best way to ensure that Woodlawn’s poor will be able to stick around. “Once they lose those units, they will never be replaced,” Butler said. “People who are poor, from this point on, won’t be able to utilize those units.”

Butler and others are scrambling to fill in the gaps. “There’s still some open land around, and some buildings that can be redeveloped and turned into affordable housing,” said Della Moran, an alum of the University of Chicago and an organizer with the Student/Tenant Organizing Project.

“We’re looking at alternatives like low-equity housing cooperatives. There still needs to be housing available in this community that is available for renters [and] working-class families,” she said. “It’s [these] people who keep the city going, who drive the busses and pick up the trash. These people need to be able to live in the area that they are from, the community that they grew up in.”

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