In an effort to be a better anchor on the city’s South Side, the University of Chicago is undertaking a new initiative to strengthen community development around employment, contracting and housing.
The university’s Office of Civic Engagement is leading the effort in the form of three working groups comprised of 50 community stakeholders. The three groups are purchasing and business development, which is focused on local minority- and women-owned businesses through contracting; employment and job training to increase local university hiring; and housing, which looks to develop potential partnerships.
The nine targeted South Side neighborhoods are Grand Boulevard, Douglas, Oakland, Kenwood, Hyde Park, Washington Park, Woodlawn, South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing. The working groups started in March and will wrap up in June with a series of recommendations.
“We know that advocates on the South Side have been asking what more can the university and other partners do to strengthen the economic fabric of the South Side,” said Susana Vasquez, associate vice president in the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement.
With the planned Obama Presidential Center in nearby Jackson Park, many student and community advocates are calling for the university to sign on to a community benefits agreement. The university hasn’t agreed to one.
Vasquez said the bulk of what’s being asked of the university are things already being done.
“That was part of the context in which we realized it would be good to engage folks at the same table regardless of the different perspectives they might have on the work,” Vasquez said.
Both the university and its hospital have a 35% certified minority- and women-owned business enterprises [MBE/WBE] goal, according to university officials. Over the past 10 years, those institutions have given more than $720 million in business to minority- and women-owned firms.
Deborah Moore is with the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services. She joined the housing working group to emphasize affordability in Woodlawn, the community just south of the university campus. For years, Woodlawn residents have been concerned about the threat of rising rents posed by the university’s presence and expansion efforts.
“I hope that the university seriously considers helping existing homeowners who have been in the community a long time to stay in the community with the onset of development coming in,” Moore said. “It would be great if people who lived through the housing bust and boom and have weathered coming out of the battle — they may need some tender loving care in how they’re looking at housing costs.”
Providing funding to aid residents or offering resources to determine housing data, evaluations and metrics are just some ways the university could partner with the community, Moore said.
Charles Perry is on the employment working group. He is director of community organizing for the Westside Health Authority and helps formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs.
“We know there’s a lot of education and research there [at the university.] How many of the people coming home from prison are going to be able to fit in those positions?” Perry said.
He said people need jobs beyond low-level maintenance and cafeteria employment. Perry said the university should reimburse the people in those jobs to advance their education outside of the University of Chicago. He said the approach to continuing education at Rush University Medical Center should be a model.