When You can No Longer Afford the Neighborhood You Love

Over the past few months we’ve been discussing our vision for flourishing communities in a series of articles.  Accessibility to fresh food, high-performing schools, and reliable transportation, as well as positive, consistent law-enforcement relationships are all important areas that contribute to a healthy and thriving community.  Last month we celebrated a major win for the area with the opening of the first mainstream grocery store in 40 years, a brand new Jewel!

This month we turn to the issue of housing.  For the people of any community to flourish, they must have access to housing options that meet their basic needs at a cost that doesn’t consume a disproportionate amount of household income.  

The housing situation in Woodlawn is more complicated than many disproportionately low income communities.  First, having lost two-thirds of the population in the last 40 years, the community has a large amount of vacancy, both buildings and empty lots.  Second, the community is surrounded by sought after amenities such as the lakefront, three massive parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the same man who designed Central Park in New York City), a marina, two golf courses and three different passenger train lines.  Third, Woodlawn had the fastest appreciating real estate in the city in 2018.

Woodlawn’s current population is approximately 25,000 with 77% of residents renting.  Of that 77%, roughly one-third are in subsidized housing, leaving 13,000 people housing-vulnerable.  Subsidized housing in and around Woodlawn is largely privately owned with special financing mechanisms provided to the developers, usually on 40-year schedules.  So long as that underlying, long-term financing is in place, and plans to replace it are anticipated, those units of affordable housing are steady and reliable.

The remaining two-thirds of renters are in a potentially vulnerable situation.  One Woodlawn resident shares her story, “As a long-time resident of Woodlawn, I’ve seen the ups and downs and been a part of the work of building this neighborhood for a long time.  In recent years, the housing prices have skyrocketed. If I wanted to buy, even a condo, I can’t. My landlord has increased the rent to the point that I’m no longer able to afford to live in a place I’ve called home for so long.”  

Woodlawn is experiencing a renewed season of development.   The Obama Presidential Center is being built on the eastern edge of the community, Tiger Woods has signed on to redesign our local golf course, and 4 new single family homes recently hit the market at more than $600,000.   Signs of new development are to be celebrated but it’s important to see that these factors and others have resulted in the average price of homes sold increasing by a staggering 194.4% in the past 10 years.

Many residents have expressed sadness that the neighborhood they’ve worked so hard to improve, is no longer affordable for them.  Woodlawn home owner and realtor Carlas Gilbert shared her thoughts, “The household income on the west side of Cottage is still much lower than the east side and Cottage Grove is the dividing line between the two.  It’s very disturbing watching the ‘original’ residents slowly get displaced. On the other hand, it is great to see the positive aspects of the neighborhood.  Small businesses are opening up, neighborhoods are being cleaned up, and beautiful buildings are being restored along with new construction. I just wish there was a way to unite everyone so that the original neighbors could enjoy the community they built during a time when no one even heard of Woodlawn.”

When we break down the household income of the average existing Woodlawn resident and account for rent or mortgage being 30% of that, a manageable rent would be $676 per month.  The most recent study by long-term residents Mattie Butler, Vince Lane, and Thurman Smith with Network of Woodlawn, shows the market rate rents in Woodlawn average between $1040 (West) and $1650 (East).  

In contrast to Woodlawn’s average household income of $27,000, the city of Chicago’s average is $66,000.  Also in contrast is the fact that the home ownership-renter balance is generally 50/50 in other communities.  There is also a shift to higher home ownership in Woodlawn happening, with many previously rented units being sold as condos or single family homes.  However, for the average Woodlawn resident who is earning less than $30,000 a year, purchasing a house or condo is rarely feasible.

Sunshine’s Facilities Director and Woodlawn homeowner Ken Asberry shares, “One of the issues we’re seeing is a lack of attainable pathways for Woodlawn residents to be able to purchase homes.  And for those who already own, ensuring they can stay in their homes and afford the property tax increases as well as maintenance of their homes to ensure the city doesn’t fine them.”

Organizations like Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) are trying to combat this housing crisis.  Their primary mission is to preserve and steward sustainable affordable rental housing options for low-to-moderate income individuals and families.  Since 2008, they’ve restored and built 500 units of affordable housing throughout Woodlawn.

Community Investment Corporation and Neighborhood Housing Services partnered with the city to create the “Renew Woodlawn Homeownership Program”.  Renew Woodlawn offered grants and down-payment assistance to qualified buyers to purchase and renovate existing properties, many of which were blighted.  Thus far, it’s allowed for 45 new home owners in the neighborhood.

Another local organization, WECAN, along with the Network of Woodlawn, conducted extensive research on the housing crisis in Woodlawn.  They proposed a multi-pronged solution that aims at minimizing the risk of displacement and providing multiple layers of protection and options for current residents to be able to stay in their homes.  Other organizations are lobbying to see a “set aside” created in which larger developers must create roughly one unit of affordable housing for every three units of market-rate housing they build.

We are thankful to be a part of a community that values caring for the housing-vulnerable.  Over the past decade, Sunshine has purchased five buildings containing twenty apartments in West Woodlawn.  Providing housing to a mix of staff members, local families and college students, these apartments are all well below market-rate. Keeping rents ranging from $700-1100 we ensure affordability for the individuals and families that occupy them.  Please continue to pray for our community as we navigate these changes that are happening and our role alongside our neighbors.

*Research courtesy of Network of Woodlawn and Thurman Smith, Preservation of Affordable Housing, Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, and Chicago City Wire