Obama Center neighbors are still waiting for their homes to be protected


CHICAGO – Less than 3 miles from where former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama inaugurated their long-awaited Presidential Center in South Chicago last week, Tahiti Hamer stays awake at night thinking about the weather limited that she and her family have moved out of the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life.

Following the center’s announcement in 2015, neighborhoods adjacent to the planned 19-acre site saw rents and housing prices skyrocket, and Hamer, 42, a single mother of three, is one of many displaced.

Hamer, a teacher at a local YMCA, said she had been trying to buy a house for the past two years, but was out of reach in her neighborhood. She found a house she could afford 12 miles to the south.

“I don’t want to leave. I want to stay, but I barely keep my head above water now,” she said. Hamer’s rent has gone from $ 800 to $ 1,000, and she has said her owner had already told her there was another $ 100 hike coming up because the area was “coming back”.

“It is sad that the place where I have lived all my life, I cannot stay any longer,” she said. “And once I leave, it will be impossible to come back. It’s the same story with so many people in this community.”

Tahiti Hamer and her children in front of their home in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago.Courtesy of Tahiti Hamer

Although the Obama Presidential Center is built to benefit historically disadvantaged communities of color, housing experts say without timely and robust housing protections it can become a catalyst for displacement, pushing back residents it intended. to help.

The location for the ambitious project was chosen to honor the roots of the former first couple and has a library, museum and activity center costing more than $ 500 million.

Demand has already exploded, with housing costs rising at a faster rate in areas surrounding the proposed hub than across the city since 2016, according to a 2019 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Much of the existing community is low-income, many are paying more than they can afford for their monthly housing costs, according to the study, and “eviction rates are among the highest in the city , the south shore being the highest, with an average of 1,800 per year, which represents about 9% of tenants. ”

“It follows the scenario of how gentrification works very well,” said Winifred Curran, professor of geography and sustainable urban development at DePaul University. “The Obama center is a bit of a signal to developers to get real estate now at a low price, and the potential for profit is huge then. That’s what gentrification is, and unless you do things very specifically to keep housing affordable to make home ownership accessible to long-term residents, you’re going to see a displacement.

The battle between residents who live around the site and the city of Chicago has been going on for six years, but many say they are still waiting for significant help.

Dixon Romeo, a longtime South Shore resident and organizer of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, a group of residents formed in 2016 to help fight displacement, said residents are not against the center. Obama but are looking for help instead, so they will be there to take advantage of it.

“How can we benefit from it if we are no longer there?” ” he said. “It was the community that sent President Obama to Springfield. The community sent him to the Senate. It was the community that sent him to the White House, and we should be the community that must remain for the presidential center. “

After an intense pullback from the coalition, the city passed the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance last year, which promises to help a neighborhood, located directly across from the site, with $ 4.5 million in affordable housing programs, a requirement that at least 30 percent of new apartments be made affordable to “very low income households” and a provision that allows tenants a “right of first refusal” if their landlord decides to sell the apartment. building, among others.

But Dixon, 27, said residents still haven’t seen significant changes with the ordinance and that it falls short by not including the South Rim and other surrounding neighborhoods that feel also the financial impacts of the center. He, along with the coalition, asks the city to put in place protections for other neighborhoods.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office did not respond to NBC News requests for comment.

An aerial view shows the proposed site for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park on May 13, 2020.Zbigniew Bzdak / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
A digital render shows a north-facing view of the Obama Presidential Center campus in Jackson Park in Chicago.The Obama Foundation

While more affordable housing is always a good thing, the first step is to make sure people who already have affordable housing don’t lose it, Curran said.

“A lot of times we play a game of cat and mouse gentrification. Something happens, causes rents to rise sharply, people are displaced, and then all of a sudden the city says, “Oh, my God, we should have done something with affordable housing,” he said. she declared.

Hurry up. The longer the city delays in providing affordable housing, the more people will be displaced, while gentrification only makes land more expensive – meaning the affordable housing budget will cover fewer units, she said. .

“If you are going to do these things, you have to do them right away because you are losing momentum, and at some point what happens is that all the activists who fought for these things are are themselves displaced, ”she said. “So they don’t have anyone who is holding the city accountable for their promises.”

While rent control would be a strong solution to helping low-income tenants, Illinois prohibits municipalities from passing rent control ordinances under the Rent Control Preemption Act passed in 1997. What they can do is offer property tax breaks to help homeowners who already provide housing and other subsidies for utilities and bills, she said.

Stacey Sutton, professor of town planning and politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the problem around the Obama center is not new to any city, and that it is the same low-income blacks and browns. who disproportionately bear the burden when development takes place largely because class and race are so closely related.

A 2020 Stanford University study showed that black residents have more constraints and fewer options of neighborhoods to settle in compared to their white counterparts, and that minority communities disproportionately feel the impacts. negative effects of gentrification.

“We think about the neighborhoods that we can visit and enjoy, but there is a complete erasure of the history of a lot of these places. Years later, we’ll look back and remember who lived there, and that’s the erasure, ”Sutton said.

‘I think the problem with large-scale development, there are always drawbacks, but you are trying to mitigate the drawbacks. You are trying to reduce the side effects. And so there are better ways to do it, and it wasn’t a better way to do it right, ”she said.

Tahiti Hamer still has hopes of being able to stay in the neighborhood that she believes is part of her, but she knows that time is running out for her.

“I feel like I’m being forced out,” she said. “How can I not afford a house in my own community where I have lived for 42 years? It’s unreal and so unfair.

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