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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

Uptown’s Voice Of The People Marks 50 Years Of Fighting Gentrification With Virtual Concert, Fundraiser

The affordable housing nonprofit will host a virtual concert and fundraiser Thursday.

Voice of the People has been fighting to preserve affordable housing in Uptown for over 50 years.
Courtesy Thom Clark
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UPTOWN — Voice of the People is marking over 50 years of fighting for affordable housing — and preparing for the next 50 years of the fight — with a virtual concert and fundraiser Thursday.

Voice of the People, a nonprofit, has owned and advocated for affordable housing for 52 years. It began fighting displacement in Uptown in 1968.

With affordable housing and gentrification as relevant as ever in the neighborhood, the group is taking time to celebrate past accomplishments while getting ready for new challenges with the Sweet Home Uptown event 6 pm. Thursday.

Neighbors can receive a ticket for the event through a donation, though one is not required. For more information on the event, click here.

Uptown is in its 30th year of a 50-year “urban reinvestment” cycle, which is another way of saying gentrification, said Michael Rohrbeck, executive director of Voice of the People.

That means Uptown is at a critical point in its redevelopment, where it must preserve its affordable housing stock before land costs in the area make it any harder to build new, affordable housing, Rohrbeck said.

“The question remains: If you have a reinvested community, how do you sustain the affordable housing you have and create new [development] opportunities?” he said.

In its earlier days, Voice of the People fought displacement by the development of Truman College, for example. And it fought the “plague” of “arson for profit,” where buildings were intentionally burned so they could be redeveloped, Rohrbeck said.

In more recent years, Uptown has seen an explosion in residential development that has raised housing prices. In some cases, the developments have led to the direct displacement of affordable housing, including the loss of multiple single-room occupancy buildings.

The attention from big-name developers has made it harder for Voice of the People to act as a landlord in Uptown.

As of 2018, the nonprofit owned or co-owned 16 buildings with 226 affordable apartments. But this summer, Voice of the People entered into an ownership group with Preservation of Affordable Housing on 11 of its buildings.

Preservation of Affordable Housing is a nationwide affordable developer that controls about 2,000 afford units in Chicago alone, with properties in Rogers Park and Austin as well as Uptown.

Managing and upkeeping property in a gentrifying neighborhood like Uptown is costly for local nonprofits, Rohrbeck said. The partnership with Preservation for Affordable Housing will keep the local housing stock in the hands of a monied developer, while Voice of the People gets to focus on tenant services, he said.

“Our missions are complementary, which is the long-term availability of affordable housing,” Rohrbeck said.

Given the interest from luxury apartment builders, it will remain difficult for affordable housing to get developed in Uptown, Rohrbeck said.

With that, the group sees its role in the next 50 years as fighting to preserve Uptown’s affordable housing stock and acting as a tenants’ services group for other organizations’ affordable buildings.

Voice of the People will also take a more active role in advocating for policy on affordable housing, Rohrbeck said.

“You can’t just develop your way out of gentrification,” he said. “What can we do to keep our community economically and racially diverse? It’s a complicated question.”

These topics will be addressed at Thursday’s Sweet Home Uptown fundraiser. For those seeking more entertainment, the All Stars Blues Band will play the virtual event.

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