By Sophia Porter
Growing up, I came to know two cities less than 1.5 miles apart. I spent every summer of high school at a desk in an apartment building on 45th St. & Greenwood Ave. The garden unit served as the site office for my parents’ business. My parents develop and manage affordable housing on the Southside of Chicago.
For my dad, the business was a continuation of his call after moving from Iowa to the city’s West Side Christian Parish on the heels of the Chicago Freedom Movement and rarely ever looking back. For my mom, it’s more personal. She’s a lifelong Southsider who strives to provide hospitality whenever and wherever possible.
Each day, I answered the phones to hear tenant grievances, witnessed painful eviction processes, and helped deal with the aftermath of crimes that took place at buildings. Everyday around 4:30 p.m., my dad would come in from another office for a quick meeting, then drive me four blocks to our house just west of 49th St. & Greenwood.
I oscillated between playing basketball at my private school gym in Hyde Park and refereeing 3 vs. 3 basketball tournaments in the parking lot of a Washington Park building where we lined the cars along the fence in a meager attempt to protect the kids from the unthinkable.
Most of what I experienced and learned about affordable housing was from the standpoint of my parents. I’ve met incredible tenants throughout my life, and through hearing their stories firsthand, I cannot ever pretend to fully understand the plight they experience day after day. What I can do is shed a very brief light on Chicago’s history with low-income housing and provide some thoughts on how we can help support people with great needs.
Meet the Chicago Housing Authority
In 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was created to help provide housing for low-income families. Shortly after its inception, the federal Neighborhood Composition Rule went into effect. It required that tenants in housing developments were the same race as the people in their surrounding area.
Fifteen years later, the CHA received additional funding from the Housing Act of 1949. Unsurprisingly, white city aldermen sidestepped attempts to build developments in their wards. And thus, the Robert Taylor Homes, Harold Ickes Homes, and the majority of other public housing developments constructed were built on the South and Westsides.
Over the next 30 years, the CHA built 168 high rise buildings that collectively contained 19,700 apartment units.
Flash forward 50 years. The city’s current approach to providing housing for low-income residents has changed. Once CHA no longer received funding for high rise developments, they transitioned to building scattered sites in an effort to move away from the dense housing that often served as an epicenter for violence.
Now, people receive Section 8 vouchers that provide rental assistance from the government. They are free to choose any housing that meets requirements for the program, including those developed by private companies. The vouchers range in the percentage of rent subsidized depending on an individual’s income.
Still, the decisions made during the planning and construction phases back in the 1940s have lasting impacts nearly four scores later. Buildings packed people together like sardines, and their neighborhoods had little access to all the necessary social services. But middle class residents were still surprised when stories of violence and trauma in these places constantly show up on the front page of the newspaper.
In 2020, we’re somehow still surprised that these stories continue less than 30 years after demolishing the largest high rises and displacing its former residences.
Racial and Economic Segregation Persist
The current state of affordable housing and the livelihood of its residents are the byproduct of many factors. In my opinion, one of the strongest is neglect. The reality is grim, but there can be hope.
A necessary step we should take is to willingly accept affordable housing developments in our communities. Chicago has an unfortunate past with curtailing efforts to build affordable housing in new areas. While there isn’t a repository of these attempts across the city, Jefferson Park residents’ dismay back in 2017 shows the reluctance to add these new developments to predominantly white neighborhoods.
It happened in my progressive, intellectual neighborhood growing up. People fought against it once they realized it would impact their own life. How will my home, schools, grocery stores, safety, community, and children be impacted by this? It’s the NIMBY phenomenon — “Not in my backyard!”
Mark Your “To Do” List
In 1954, we learned that separate cannot be equal in America. We cannot continue to neglect impoverished Black communities and expect them to get better. It is not enough to say that Black Lives Matter and tout statistics from economic inequality indexes. If we want to truly serve others, then we need to exhibit sacrifice by sharing the resources we were fortunate to receive by chance.
It is not enough to say that Black Lives Matter and tout statistics from economic inequality indexes. If we want to truly serve others, then we need to exhibit sacrifice by sharing the resources we were fortunate to receive by chance.
On a larger scale, knowing the neighborhood associations and local community organizations that exist in your area is a great place to start and become informed on any new developments. For Northsiders wanting to act justly, love mercy, and engage with affordable housing efforts, you can connect with ONE Northside as well.
On a smaller scale, getting to know your neighbors, both new and old, is a great way to foster community within your space, particularly as the composition changes. For these two cities to survive, they must become one.