Renters Learn How to Protect Housing

October 26, 2007

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Residents of Lake Parc Place are learning about their rights as renters.
Some activists on the South Side want to train apartment renters how to defend their affordable housing. A first step, they say, is for people to band together in tenant councils. A workshop on just how do to that is on the agenda tomorrow at a housing conference sponsored by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, or KOCO. The group says that the South Side's dwindling stock of affordable housing is what's driving the effort. Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has the story.

Herman Bonner and Shannon Bennett step off the elevator of an apartment building a couple miles south of McComick Place.

ambi: Elevator sounds

The KOCO organizers are getting the word out to people about the upcoming tenants' training.

On this early autumn evening, the pair knocks on doors.

ambi: Door knocking/hallway walking

They think this high rise overlooking Lake Michigan with a peek-a-boo view of downtown is at risk of being converted to condos.

ambi: Door knocking

Georgia Caldwell lets us in her two-bedroom apartment. She's fast-talking, passionate and doesn't want to move out. Her market-rate rent is nine hundred and seventy five dollars a month. And that's considered affordable in this area.

CALDWELL: Half of us can't afford to go no place else. Me -- my job is on and off. I'm a laborer. I work sometimes and sometimes I'm off. So I need to stay in affordable places. And then I do like it over here.

Her rent adjusts when she's not working. She's lived at Lake Parc Place for sixteen years and says she's seen the area get cleaner and safer.

CALDWELL: You go outside now you just feel good. I go over on the track, I feel good. I go to the lake, I feel good. It's just a different atmosphere. And I don't want to leave now. I was here when it was terrible.

The Chicago Housing Authority owns Lake Parc Place. Fifty percent of the building is set for public housing residents and the other half is affordable. In the early 1990s, this became the agency's first mixed-income building and a forerunner of what was to come.

A CHA spokesman says there are no plans to sell or change the building.

Still, KOCO helped form a tenants' council earlier this year. Organizers say signs of improvements like the ones Georgia Caldwell mentions and ads for five hundred thousand dollar condos have them convinced change could be in the future.

KOCO says about 20 buildings lost affordable housing units in North Kenwood and Oakland–once neglected neighborhoods that are now real estate hot spots the past. There's another concern, too, Bennett tells me earlier in his office.

BENNETT: Many tenants, like all of us, we move into neighborhoods, we move into buildings, we don't know all the subsidies that we built to keep it affordable. We know that unit might be affordable in our neighborhood. The first thing is awareness that you might be at risk.

Bennett's talking about buildings whose owners got low-income tax credits from the federal government to provide affordable housing units. But those tax credits expire after 15 years.

The nonprofit Chicago Rehab Network estimates the credits will end for fifty-two buildings citywide over the next few years – that's close to thirty-three hundred units in buildings that could be up for sale. That doesn't mean the properties have to go the highest bidder.

In 2004, Illinois passed a law that says tenants have the first right to buy the building if a tenant council's in place. A few months ago the city of Chicago passed a similar ordinance.

This year an apartment complex in Logan Square used the law to partner with a nonprofit developer to keep the building affordable. KOCO leaders want to help tenants mimic that success.

BONNER: I've seen buildings come into the neighborhood that would out price the people of low to low income. They're not looking out for the seniors or the disabled. I'm one of the disabled living in the community.

KOCO helped Herman Bonner form a council in his building on South Drexel Boulevard. He's now the president of his council.

“Affordable housing” is a squishy term but, it's largely considered no more than 30 percent of a persons income.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago say that about two hundred and seventy-five thousand families in Chicago don't have the affordable housing they need.

Bonner's building is safe for now; the owner has extended the low-income tax credit. But he says the tenant council is necessary.

Just in case.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.