HUMBOLDT PARK — In Chicago, aldermen typically ask the community to weigh in on development proposals that require a zoning change. In fact, many aldermen say they won’t approve a project unless the community signs off on it.
But what happens when residents get involved in the process and it backfires on them?
It all started a few months ago, when word got out that property owner Robert Linn of Point B Properties wanted to redevelop a vintage three-level, three-apartment home at 1759 N. Sawyer Ave., next to The 606.
Almost immediately the residents panicked. They assumed, based on conversations with Linn’s team, that Linn was going to find a way to kick them out and hike up the rent.
Members of the impacted neighborhood group, Grassroots Illinois Action Humboldt Park, quickly organized on the residents’ behalf and arranged a community meeting.
“Point B Properties is proposing to evict the people living in the three-flat at 1759 N. Sawyer, modify and enlarge the building, resulting in a 4-unit building, taking up most of the lot,” the group’s flier read.
“This is a meeting to decide if we, as neighbors, should recommend to the Alderman to approve the zoning change or reject the zoning change. The Alderman has said that he will most likely go along with our recommendation. The developer will be present at the meeting.”
The community meeting did not go well for Linn. Almost everyone who attended the meeting slammed the developer’s proposal, accusing him of being greedy and callous. Linn said he spent most of the meeting defending his character.
“I felt like we were guilty until proven innocent,” the developer said.
Ultimately the community denied the zoning change: 17 of the residents voted “no,” three voted “yes,” and three voted “yes” — but with conditions. As a result, Ald. Roberto Maldonado, whose 26th ward includes the property, also denied the change, quashing Linn’s plans.
Linn said it was an especially frustrating outcome because the residents’ assumptions were wrong. He said he was never going to kick the residents out or raise the rent — he was only looking to build a four-unit addition to make the property more economically viable.
“The plan was always to keep the existing building as-is, and I don’t think the rents would’ve changed either. If anything, they would’ve gone down,” Linn said, adding that he typically uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards to price his units.
The three-flat is nearly 130 years old, according to Cook County property records. Residents are currently paying rents in the $1,250 range.
Linn described the building as being in “fine shape” with “beautiful” oak wood floors.
“It’s just not up to current standards with granite [countertops] and stainless [steel appliances],” the developer said.
“As-is, [the property] doesn’t perform that well on paper. It was an ideal location. Either improve it, increase its performance or get rid of it.”
After his zoning change was denied, Linn did the latter and put the property on the market.
Since hitting the market a couple of weeks ago, the property has already elicited a couple of offers from folks looking to do a gut rehab, according to Linn. In other words, it’s very likely the new owner will rehab the building and then hike up the rent — the exact scenario residents were afraid would happen.
A gut-rehab, unlike Linn’s plan to enlarge the building, doesn’t need a zoning change, so community impact isn’t weighed.
“It’s a high likelihood that [the residents] will get kicked out. It’s something I wanted to say at the meeting, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I didn’t want it to come across as a threat. There were people calling us the devil. It was a lot,” Linn said.
Brian Elmore, member of Grassroots Illinois Action, said his group regrets accusing the developer of evicting the residents in its flier, but that’s as far as the regrets go.
“That was the mistake on the part of our organization,” Elmore said, adding that he had misunderstood Linn’s attorney in an email exchange, but it was cleared up at the top of the meeting.
“I don’t think the flier impacted the meeting. Only one person brought up the flier. I honestly don’t know how many people even read it,” he said.
Elmore said there’s nothing else his group would’ve done differently.
“If you’re not a property owner, and you’re not a zoning attorney, you’re in a very precarious position in this city and it makes it difficult to have any sort of say over what happens in your neighborhood,” he said.
“What [Linn] says — that all sounds great, but ultimately, what could’ve happened is we said, ‘Yes, we agree to this zoning change,’ and then they would’ve had carte blanche to do a number of things on the property. … there’s no way to know what he actually would’ve done.”
The residents didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
Reflecting back on the ordeal, Elmore said the city needs to do more to protect renters.
“The alderman has been great to us. He’s doing what we asked of him. And we’re still here today talking about the building being sold and the people being evicted. It’s an unfortunate situation.”
Linn has a different takeaway.
“I know a lot of developers, and most of them are good people and are interested in making better communities, in building equitable cities. … I would hear them out,” the developer said.
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