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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

With Obama Center On Horizon, Rent Hikes Already Hitting Woodlawn Residents: ‘They Want To Stay Here’

The Obama Center's visibility provides a unique chance to draw attention to the issues behind gentrification in Chicago. "We want the library to be here, but we also don't want to be displaced," one neighbor said.

Obama CBA Coalition members Parrish Brown (with megaphone) and Ebonee Green (in front of microphones) lead a chant at a September 2019 rally for a community benefits agreement.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — Margarett Brewer has lived in Woodlawn for 64 years, so she’s seen it at its peak: “a vibrant community” with shops, entertainment and life’s necessities; a crucial part of the city’s Black Belt.

The planned Obama Presidential Center promises to help Woodlawn reach those heights again, but Brewer wants to ensure longtime residents like herself can afford to stay in the neighborhood it will call home.

“We want the library to be here, but we also don’t want to be displaced,” she said.

Brewer is concerned about the rising costs of living, as indicated by the release of a study Thursday that found new apartments around the Obama Center site are too expensive for most current renters.

That’s why, though Brewer wasn’t feeling well, she rallied with more than 100 of her neighbors Thursday to push for an Obama Center community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance.

The rally at Hyde Park Academy High School was organized by the Obama CBA Coalition. A march that followed led to a demonstration blocking traffic at East 63rd Street and South Cornell Drive.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
A car on Cornell Drive tries to hop the median as supporters of a CBA ordinance to protect Woodlawn residents from displacement shut down the intersection.

For about 15 minutes, under the watch of a police car and with yellow-vested staff guiding them, marchers shut down the street. They formed a circle in the intersection and recited chants, including “CBA” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

Brewer, who participated in the demonstration, lives in a senior apartment. She’s relatively protected from rent increases.

But her daughter is a Woodlawn homeowner who has seen property taxes rise “tremendously” alongside the market’s interest in the neighborhood.

Unlike her daughter, who must for pay her own tax increases, landlords can “put the difference onto the renters,” Brewer said.

If approved by City Council, the CBA ordinance would preserve 30 percent of all new developments in the area for affordable housing. And if Cook County also approves such a deal, it would freeze property taxes.

The ordinance isn’t perfect by any means, but protections for renters and homeowners are worth marching for, Brewer said.

“It doesn’t go far enough, but something is better than nothing,” she said. “I hope these aldermen have the guts to pass something that will help these young people out here.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Margarett Brewer (far left) and other marchers head into the intersection of 63rd Drive and Cornell Drive, where they shut down traffic for about 15 minutes.

One of those young people marching Thursday was Kyana Butler, a mother, Kennedy-King College student and full-time employee. She said a rally about displacement “touches home” — she moved out of Woodlawn in 2018 after she was notified her rent would rise by $150 a month.

The increase and the eviction proceedings that followed “forced (her) to be moved” to East Chatham, where she said she hears gunfire more frequently.

A youth organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power, Butler said she often hears stories like her own. She said the CBA ordinance is the community’s best shot at protecting its affordable housing, as the process of displacement is already in motion.

There’s no way to measure how much influence the Obama Center plans have had on the rising costs of living, but there’s clearly a connection, she said.

“The center coming is raising alarm, and it’s attracting a lot of greedy developers that want to come into the community to take over,” Butler said.

Rally-goers also came from areas that would not be impacted by the CBA ordinance. A significant portion of marchers wore and displayed Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization gear.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Marchers in support of a CBA ordinance to protect against Obama Center-related displacement head down Stony Island Avenue on Sept. 5.

Bronzeville resident Tommy Griffin said attending the rally was his first time organizing around the CBA.

He has rented previously, so he understands the impact of a rent increase, and as a current homeowner he knows the pressure rising property taxes can put on families.

The Obama Center is neither the first nor the last major development to bring the issue of displacement to light, he said. Neighborhoods are facing drastic changes all over Chicago, and in each there’s a battle between the “have-nots and the haves.”

“My rent has went up as well, so I know what they’re fighting for here in Woodlawn,” Griffin said. “People that have been here all these years, they want to stay here.”

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