Housing Déjà Vu for Woodlawn Residents | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Housing Déjà Vu for Woodlawn Residents

Affordable housing is a sensitive issue in Chicago's gentrifying Woodlawn neighborhood. A group of tenants have been fighting to preserve a cluster of low-rent apartments

that are in housing court for multiple code violations. And, there's an irony in this struggle. The man who runs the nonprofit that's in charge of the buildings is Leon Finney. Residents want to know why a person who back when he was a young man made his name fighting slumlords now finds himself being accused of neglect.

WBEZ's Natalie Moore has the story.


Affordable housing is a sensitive issue in Chicago's gentrifying Woodlawn neighborhood. A group of tenants has been fighting to preserve a cluster of low-rent apartments that are in housing court for multiple code violations. And there's an irony in this struggle. The man who runs the nonprofit in charge of the buildings is Leon Finney. Residents want to know why a man who made his name as a young man fighting slumlords, now finds himself being accused of neglect.


Latasha Edwards lives in an apartment on Kimbark Avenue. She has exposed wires, peeling plaster, cracks in the floors and mice.

EDWARDS: These are real big holes here. I had to plug it up with a sock. One might come out on me. This is why I don't bother with them.

Edwards shares the careworn apartment with her four children.

REPORTER: When's the last time you saw a mouse?
EDWARDS: Right before you got here.

Edwards is tenant president of Kimbark apartments and she says she complains of mice and everything else to management.

EDWARDS: All they say is ‘okay, baby, I'm putting in your work order in now. All I can do is put it in. I don't know when they're going to come out.

The five buildings that comprise the Kimbark apartments total 100 apartments. They are project-based Section 8, meaning all of the residents have low-income housing vouchers. The buildings are owned by the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corporation, or WRC, run by Rev. Leon Finney.

Many of the residents feel like they have been ignored.

FINNEY: I agree, I agree.

Leon Finney says he wants to take responsibility for the situation.

FINNEY: But the question is how were we going to address it? So to ignore intentionally and maliciously is one thing. To ignore because you don't have the ability to respond is a different issue.

Finney is a politically connected pastor. He's on the city planning commission. In the 1960s he worked with The Woodlawn Organization, or TWO, an upstart that sounded the clarion call on affordable housing. Finney is aware of the paradox of his position today with the decrepit Kimbark apartments.
 
FINNEY: If I were still organizing neighborhoods and block clubs I would've organized the tenants myself and redress their interests.

Finney says his nonprofit hasn't had the money to pay the bills and pay for the improvements. WRC bought the buildings in the early 1970s. Finney says the financial troubles began a few years ago. He says the building is in the process of being sold to a new owner who's committed to keeping the Section 8 vouchers and upgrading the units.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, confirms that a sale is underway for the spring. All parties are keeping the new owner's name under wraps. But this public fight around Kimbark apartments has left a bad taste in the mouths of Woodlawn community organizers like Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

GINSBERG-JAECKLE: We're continuing to focus on pressuring Dr. Finney to do the right thing and improve the immediate conditions. But we recognize what we really need to do is meet with the new owners at this point and with HUD and assure that we get in writing a both a plan to thoroughly rehabilitate and take care of the conditions of the complex and get in writing, most importantly, that this land will continue to serve for subsidized housing. This is an up-and-coming neighborhood and the people who've been here for years struggling for years deserve to stay here as it improves.

Ginsberg-Jaeckle says he has reason to be suspicious. Five years ago Kimbark apartments almost went condo. There's another affordable housing development in Woodlawn that almost lost its vouchers a couple of years ago. And that Grove Parc complex was affiliated with TWO and Finney.

The specter of gentrification bothers Ginsberg-Jaeckle. But Finney disagrees that he's been ushering nascent gentrification in Woodlawn.

Shirley Johnson is program director for the citywide Metropolitan Tenants Organization. She says the nonprofit often works with Woodlawn tenants who live in deteriorating units.

JOHNSON: In Woodlawn, there's been a lot of foreclosures and you've got the migration of students from the University of Chicago with its expansion also moving into Woodlawn. So it's created kind of a housing crisis and a tenant can't just very well move out of a building and go somewhere else and find decent housing in their community.

Recently workers have shown up at Latasha Edwards' unit to fix her myriad problems.

Since the tenants protested against Finney at city hall last month, some improvements have been made. Finney says the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corporation has stopped paying the mortgage to use that money to bring the buildings up to code.

Music Button: Eliot Lipp, "Spit Rap", from the CD Tacoma Mockingbird, (Hefty)

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