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City Previews 1st Phase Of Woodlawn Affordable Housing, But Activists Press To Speed Up Timeline With Obama Center’s Arrival Looming

Officials proposed redeveloping 13 vacant lots on 63rd Street into five buildings with about 100 affordable apartments, with each building similar in scale to the Park Station project approved last fall.

Southside Together Organizing for Power housing organizer Savannah Brown speaks at a CBA Coalition press conference Thursday at 63rd Street and Blackstone Avenue, one of the vacant "high-density" lots the coalition aims to secure for affordable housing under a 2020 ordinance.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — City officials want to roll out Woodlawn’s hard-won affordable housing protections in phases, but organizers said they’re concerned a slower-moving process would shortchange low-income residents at risk of being displaced by the Obama Presidential Center.

Officials with the city’s housing and planning departments presented a plan this week to seek developers’ proposals to build five buildings on 13 vacant, city-owned properties along 63rd Street between Ingleside and University avenues, splitting the process into phases.

That first phase would create up to 350 apartments, officials said at a Tuesday meeting of Woodlawn’s housing working group. About 100 apartments would be affordable for residents making less than 50 percent of the area median income, or about $46,600 for a family of four.

Each development could be modeled after the Park Station project at 63rd Street and Maryland Avenue, city planner Justin Petersen said.

Park Station, the first project approved under the 2020 Woodlawn housing ordinance, will be a five-story building with two “live-work” spaces and three storefronts. 

As the plan announced Tuesday would only seek proposals to develop 13 of the 52 lots required under the ordinance, “this is just a starting point, but we really think it’s a great first step to achieving our goals,” Petersen said.

Credit: Department of Housing
A rendering of five buildings on 13 city-owned lots along 63rd Street, for which city planners and housing officials want to seek development proposals.

Residents and housing organizers with the CBA Coalition rejected the city’s map proposing locations for all 52 lots required under the ordinance, saying they want all available high-density lots on 63rd Street east of Cottage Grove set aside for affordable housing.

City officials have changed their approach in recent weeks. Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara pushed back against calls to “pre-identify” locations for all 52 lots at a December working group meeting; now, the city proposes developing the lots in phases.

The 13 lots proposed by the city this week align with the coalition’s demands, as they’re all high density and east of Cottage Grove.

“We heard that there is a great concern about them being on the east side, but this would not be the end of this,” said Aaron Johnson, a project manager for the housing department. “This is our first phase. Next phase, we can also move further west.”

But with the Obama Center under construction, there’s no time to waste by splitting development into phases, activists said. They want to see the city commit to the exact locations of all 52 lots, even if developers and funding aren’t immediately available.

“This proposal is not aggressive enough,” Savannah Brown, a coalition member and housing organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power, told Block Club. “… We’re happy to see these 13 lots are being included, but, again, it’s just not enough.”

By developing these 13 high-density lots, the city would exceed the ordinance’s minimum requirement, as at least 10 high-density lots must be redeveloped.

Under the city’s new plan, the 39 remaining lots to be developed in future phases could all be lower density, leading to fewer units of affordable housing.

“We’re not going to stop pushing the city to set aside all of the lots on 63rd leading up to the presidential center, as all of those lots are high density,” Brown said. “These are the lots that are going to make the most impactful and make the biggest dent in displacement, so folks who live in Woodlawn are able to stay in Woodlawn.”

Credit: Provided
The CBA Coalition’s proposed map for the 52 affordable housing developments to be built under the Woodlawn housing ordinance would create about 1,000 affordable units, residents said. Lots in green are lower density, while lots in blue are higher density.

Officials also proposed a focus area for developing affordable home-buying options for Woodlawn residents this week, as they prepare to request applications for homeownership programs.

The 2020 ordinance modified the City Lots for Working Families program, through which the city sells vacant lots to developers for $1. The developers then build affordable single-family homes and two-flats on the land.

The ordinance also extends a purchase price assistance program, through which Woodlawn residents can get up to $60,000 in grant funding toward buying a home.

The city’s proposed first phase for these programs roughly includes 63rd to 65th streets and Maryland to Greenwood avenues. It would then be expanded to the east and west, spanning from St. Lawrence to Woodlawn avenues.

“The working group [voiced] a real interest in rebuilding middle-class homeownership opportunities for people in the community,” Novara said. “That’s why we’re bringing [the rental and homeownership proposals] forward at the same time, because we think it’s an important combination to speak to both of those needs.”

Residents raised other concerns Tuesday, such as how to make developers and landlords accountable for the conditions of new affordable housing units. They also questioned the income requirements for homeowner repair grants under the ordinance, for which applications closed Feb. 15.

“I want you all to trust the process and know that we all look at this in a different way,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said. “We all want the same things, and that is affordable housing around the ward, and for our neighbors to be able to stay in the communities that they love.”

Credit: Department of Housing
A map showing the planned first phase for developing 13 vacant city lots into high-density buildings (circled in blue) and for implementing affordable homeownership options in Woodlawn (circled in green).
Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Signs placed by the CBA Coalition reading “We Demand Affordable Housing Here” are visible along 63rd Street near University Avenue, just east of where the city has proposed building five mixed-income housing developments.

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