Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Puts Affordable Housing Groups In A Bind

Lincoln Yards rendering 2
Artist rendering of the Lincoln Yards project. Courtesy of Sterling Bay
Lincoln Yards rendering 2
Artist rendering of the Lincoln Yards project. Courtesy of Sterling Bay

Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Puts Affordable Housing Groups In A Bind

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Joy Aruguete, longtime director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, got a call the other day from a miffed community member.

He wanted to know one thing: Was Bickerdike really supporting Lincoln Yards?

Bickerdike is one of the city’s largest and oldest affordable housing groups.

And Lincoln Yards is a planned $6 billion megaproject — featuring skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, and thousands of units of upscale housing — to be sandwiched between Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

 “Well, why would you think that?” Aruguete said she asked the caller. “They proceeded to tell me that they had gotten a hold of this briefing that had evidently been given out to all the aldermen.”

The briefing — a 10-page PDF — included a list of “Lincoln Yards Supporters (to date).”

“And there, clear as day, was our name,” said Aruguete.

Lincoln Yards incorrect list of supporters
A list of Lincoln Yards supporters compiled by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and circulated to aldermen included — incorrectly — at least two respected nonprofits that did not pledge their support to the megaproject: Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation and the Metropolitan Planning Council. Chicago Department of Planning and Development

The designation was wrong; Bickerdike did not take a position on the Lincoln Yards megaproject, though city officials had sought their support. 

“We were approached,” said Aruguete. 

The city said it removed Bickerdike — and the name of another group listed in error, the Metropolitan Planning Council — “as soon as the error was identified.” 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city have been pushing for the project and its 20,000 projected jobs and future tax money. And they’ve been lining up community groups like Bickerdike to support Lincoln Yards. That offers political cover to aldermen, who have to vote on various aspects of the controversial project.

Normally, getting community groups to support a massive upscale development — especially one that could include a $900 million taxpayer subsidy — would be a tough sell. 

But the sheer scale of the Lincoln Yards development combined with Chicago’s affordable housing requirements means Lincoln Yards could potentially create some 1,200 units of affordable housing on-site, nearby and citywide.

Paradoxically, that means the massive luxury housing development is also one of the biggest single affordable housing efforts in the city.

And that has meant affordable housing groups are facing a dilemma. Should they support a giant upscale development if it means more affordable housing units? 

Housing groups are weighing costs and benefits of Lincoln Yards and making very different calculations about whether or not to support it.

Officially neutral, but seeing housing costs rise

Aruguete helped create the requirement that forces developers in Chicago to include affordable housing in their projects — or pay a fee if they don’t. “The market is not producing a stock of affordable housing that is needed for Chicago,” she said.

From her vantage point working in Humboldt Park and nearby communities, Chicago is facing a crisis. 

“People are really housing cost burdened,” she said, adding that the market is creating new housing for people at high incomes, priced at high rates.

“They’re priced at a very high level — higher than the rest of the community,” said Aruguete. “I think the net effect is that it continues to drive housing costs up, rental rates and sales prices.” 

That hurts what Aruguete’s group fundamentally stands for: housing affordability. 

And Lincoln Yards could bring ripple effects at a whole new scale, she said. “Six thousand apartments? That’s… wow.”

But while Bickerdike doesn’t support Lincoln Yards, the group also doesn’t officially oppose the project. 

That could be because of the bind in which groups like Bickerdike find themselves. Chicago is a political town, and Bickerdike and other housing developers have projects in the works for which they need permits and city funding too.]

In support, because of additional affordable housing

Another North Side group made a very different calculation when they were asked by the city to support Lincoln Yards.

“I’m testifying here today to express our support for the updated affordable housing commitments at Lincoln Yards,” Diane Limas told aldermen earlier this month at a zoning committee hearing to convert Lincoln Yards from its former industrial and manufacturing designation. 

“This project will be one of the largest affordable housing projects in the country,” said Limas, the president of Communities United. That group has won honors for turning foreclosed apartments into affordable housing in Albany Park.

“If we scrap this development, how many units of affordable housing are we going to get?” Limas said. “If we get nothing, how are we winning?”

Limas and Maria Elena Sifuentes, vice president of Communities United, said it’s been devastating to watch longtime residents pushed from their neighborhood due to rising rents.

“I’ve seen it with family, with friends, they’re just leaving to the suburbs,” said Sifuentes, who said she had to find a new place after her rent doubled. “Any little thing we can get is something where we can offer it to some of our people to stay.”

Kevin Bargnes, a spokesman with Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, said the city received 11 letters of support from affordable housing advocates and developers. He called the final deal “a plan both policymakers and housing advocates can be proud of.” 

Concerned about segregation

The Metropolitan Planning Council is another group that is not endorsing Lincoln Yards but ended up on the list of supporters that was circulated to aldermen. Vice president Marisa Novara said the only way her group would have supported the project is if all affordable housing units the developer is required to provide were built on site or nearby. That’s because there is a dearth of affordable housing on the North Side, Novara said, and concentrating affordable housing on the city’s South and West sides contributes to segregation in the city.

“The area where Lincoln Yards is — less than 2.5 percent of its rental units are affordable,” said Novara. “Just fundamentally we believe that every community needs to contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs. And in this case if a community is way behind in that contribution, then it needs to do more to catch up.”

Opposed, and protesting

Many Chicago housing groups are ideologically so far from supporting Lincoln Yards that the city did not even approach them. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association was not asked to support the project, said Huu Nguyen. She’s a board member who has been protesting Lincoln Yards.

“Our mission is around social justice, and for us — this project — it’s like almost the exact opposite of an equitable project,” said Nguyen.

Her group said the city should be considering an entirely different question: what if we poured $900 million directly into affordable housing, without attaching it to a new high-end neighborhood? 

Linda Lutton covers Chicago’s neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.