Residents of a 26-unit, Humboldt Park apartment building say they’re afraid they’ll be unable to remain in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community as gentrification spreads.
The complex stands next to one of the towering, steel Puerto Rican flags that spans the width of Division Street. Residents there are fighting to keep the apartment building affordable.
The owner of the building, Amir Syed, has signalled an intent to federal and state authorities not to renew the building’s project-based Section 8 contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Pursuant to such agreements, the federal government has provided housing subsidies for units in the building, which kept rents low for decades, according to residents.
“One morning we woke up and there was flyers on each of the doors and the downstairs center space that said you have by April 2020 to get out, we’re not renewing the contract,” said Andriana Vera, 24, whose family moved into the building a decade ago. Vera lives there with her elderly, disabled father and her 17-month old daughter.
“Everybody was very, very scared,” Vera said.
Located at 2815-2821 W. Division Street, the complex is one of 222 buildings in Chicago that participate in HUD’s Project-Based Rental Assistance program. Owners of these buildings receive a subsidy from HUD directly, which in turns helps to keep rents affordable for tenants.
Syed bought the building in 2009. He renewed the building’s project-based Section 8 contract in 2010 and again in 2015, according to his attorney, Bonnie Varner. The current contract expires in April 2020, although Varner said tenants were informed that hey could remain in the building until July 2020.
But the tenants are demanding that Syed either renew the contract or comply with state law by offering their tenants association and an affordable housing developer the chance to purchase the building.
“The tenants are in the process of interviewing affordable housing developers,” said Emily Coffey, a housing justice staff attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “There are many developers who are interested in purchasing this building and keeping it affordable, because affordable housing developers understand the value of this community and this development.”
According to documents that Coffey has provided, Syed has made a bona fide offer to the tenants association to purchase the building for $10 million. Coffey said that price is “above market value” and that the association is awaiting an appraisal of the building to determine a fair price.
Several tenants and their allies noted that their concern isn’t simply about whether this particular building remains affordable. State Representative Delia Ramirez (D-4th) noted that the potential change in the building’s status comes in the context of rising rents across the Humboldt Park neighborhood. It is a history that Puerto Rican families in Chicago know all too well, she said.
“This is about people who’ve been pushed out from Lincoln Park, from Wicker Park, from Logan Square now they’re also being pushed out from Humboldt Park,” Ramirez said. “And we are saying enough is enough.”
Varner said there is a misperception that her client is trying to throw tenants out in order to charge higher, market-rate rents.
“I know there’s a gentrification concern in Humboldt Park right now,” Varner said. “I’m sure that’s their fear. I’m not denying that’s what they’re worrying about.”
Varner said the reason Syed did not intend to renew the contract was because he inherited it when he purchased the building 10 years ago. And, under the program, the contracts are evaluated only when the contracts are renewed. In neighborhoods where market rates are rising quickly, building owners will lose value during the course of the five-year contract.
Instead, Varner said Syed’s goal was to retain the current tenants, but to have them use individual Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers. Doing so would attach the housing subsidies to the residents instead of to the units. Since those vouchers are renewed yearly, the valuation of the property trends more closely with changes in the market, Varner said.
Varner also noted that the switch would also make it easier for the building owner to remove “problem” tenants.
According to Varner and HUD, Syed continues to meet with HUD to discuss options. “We’ve tried to be as transparent as we can be,” Varner said, “but I get that the process is not going as well as it could.”
Syed has until Dec. 15 to confirm his intention to opt out of the contract, according to Marta Juaniza, a HUD spokesperson. Under the program, tenants pay 30 percent of their income towards their rent with the federal housing subsidy covering the rest. “HUD will continue to work with the owner and residents on ensuring that residents maintain their affordable housing through either the extension of a project-based Section 8 contract or issuance of tenant protection vouchers in the event of an opt out,” Juaniza said.
Varner said Syed may yet decide to renew the contract, after all.
For Vera, that would be better than having to find a new place to live. She said her family likely would have to move to a completely different part of the city because they can no longer afford market rents in Humboldt Park or nearby neighborhoods.
But Vera would prefer that Syed take the other option — to sell the building to the tenants association.
“I feel like he’s honestly wiped his hands clean of the building,” Vera said of Syed.
Vera noted that she has made repeated requests of Syed to replace her family’s broken refrigerator over the last four months, to no avail. This has created problems with storing breast milk for her baby and insulin for her father.
“[Syed] signing a contract again, we’re not going to have a fun time together,” Vera said. “I can just imagine.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.