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Airbags

The cranes and condo school of urban development can not easily co-exit with a "city of neighborhoods" we've long claimed Chicago to be. The impulsive drive to increase property values through municipal sponsored real estate speculation conflicts with the values imprinted on the streets, corners and buildings of a particular neighborhood. The cranes and condos calculus sees particular neighborhoods as interchangeable parts in a profit making enterprise. A city of neighborhoods is predicated on residents valuing their physical surroundings because of the shared history of life on the block. Besides the obvious need to provide decent housing for all Chicago residents, the issue of affordable housing is about current residents of a neighborhood being able to shape the continued history and story of that neighborhood. Attempts to ensure affordability in newly "hot" areas are not just social welfare policies that seek to help poor homeowners or renters. They are also, and perhaps even more fundamentally, community survival programs.

West Humboldt Park, broadly defined as the area between Kedzie (the unofficial western border of Humboldt Park) on the east, Pulaski on the west, North Avenue on the north and Kinzie on the south, has not yet found itself in the crosshairs of the speculating vanguard of the cranes and condo set. It is not "hot" like Humboldt Park, Bucktown or Wicker Park nor does it command the same type of attention of more hard-pressed neighborhoods such as North Lawndale or Woodlawn. It's often lumped in with more "famous" neighborhoods like Austin or Garfield Park, but residents will be quick to tell you that despite the tendency of planners or grad students to imagine the African-American West Side to be one large undifferentiated mega-neighborhood, West Humboldt Park is different. While it doesn't face the same gentrification pressure as East Humboldt Park, there is push across Kedzie and North Avenue. The usual indices of urban disintegration like poverty and crime rates are high in the area, but not as high as neighborhoods to the South. It is a neighborhood in transition, where an influx of displaced residents from the East enter a neighborhood with strong divisions between older homeowners and younger renters and a weak but functioning retail economy.

The West Humboldt Park Family and Development Council was originally founded to respond to the area's unfavorable levels of unemployment and economic development and to its rising levels of family and community violence. A transplanted New Yorker and University of Chicago graduate, Bill Howard, has been its executive director since 2000. A partnership with convention-goers at the American Planning Association's annual meeting led to the council discovering priorities among residents for the neighborhood. As expected, employment and crime were high on the list. But surprisingly, housing was first on the list of resident priorities.

According to Howard, further reflection on the results of the survey began to make sense of why housing was so high on the list of resident priorities. First, it was about community survival. Long-time residents of the community wanted to be sure that they had the ability to continue to live where their life histories of struggle and joys played out. Second, it was about addressing the root causes of underdevelopment in West Humboldt Park. For years, the Development Council had been working on the symptoms of that underdevelopment. The roots causes of underdevelopment, according to Howard, are disconnects between people within West Humboldt Park and between community residents and the mainstream economy. Promoting home ownership among households earning less than 60 percent of the metropolitan area median level through a community land trust allows the Development Council to attack both disconnects.

The First Community Land Trust of Chicago, independently incorporated in 2003, acquires vacant land from the City in order to build a planned 30 homes for low-income renters. Contruction on an initial 10 began recently. Buyers lease the land and purchase the house built by the land trust on the property. Not to be confused with the City of Chicago's land trust, the First Community Land Trust of Chicago is controlled by a board made up of land trust homeowners, community members and extra-community supporters chosen by homeowners and community members from a pool of supporting members.

This unique arrangement moves this project beyond the noble yet shallow goal of simple affordable housing construction and allows residents of West Humboldt Park to defend themselves from the cranes and condo school of urban development. Groups within the neighborhood that have historically been suspicious of each other (low-income renters and older homeowners, for instance) now work together to manage the affairs of the area covered by the trust. This complements the Development Council's strategy of creating and strengthening block clubs throughout the neighborhood. Neighborhood residents and homeowners are connected to the larger economy through supporting members and through credit restoration and savings programs that are part of the trust's programs.

Most importantly, the land trust is a kind of flag planted by the community that says West Humboldt Park is not an undifferentiated mass of poverty, crime and neglect, but a neighborhood worth saving.

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Comments

anthony / November 19, 2007 6:31 PM

Nice piece

 

About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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