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Tenants Fight Back Against Displacement

by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle |
November 1, 2005
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Picture of tenants holding signs protesting displacement at rally
(Fight Back! News/Staff)
Photo of tenants holding signs protesting displacement at rally Photo of tenants holding signs protesting displacement at rally Photo of tenants holding signs protesting displacement at rally
(Fight Back! News/Staff)
(Fight Back! News/Staff)
(Fight Back! News/Staff)

As the rich grab up every piece of land they can on Chicago’s South side, thousands of low-income people are being pushed out of the neighborhoods they call home. Powerful institutions like the University of Chicago and its local partner The Woodlawn Organization are colluding with Mayor Daley to subject neighborhoods like Woodlawn to a feeding frenzy by greedy developers - a nightmare for families who can no longer afford skyrocketing rents and property taxes. But as the tenants of the Kimbark Tenants Association are showing, you don't have to just pack up - you can fight back.

Chicago IL - “We won’t go! No more condos!” shouted a group of about 40 tenants and community supporters holding a press conference and rally in March 2005 on an empty lot on the South side at 62nd and Kimbark Ave. Three months earlier management told the tenants of five subsidized buildings that they had to pack up and leave because the buildings would be going condo in May. Some people, including seniors in their eighties who had raised generations of children in those buildings, chose to pack up and go, afraid of sudden displacement when the May deadline rolled around. Others decided to stay and fight, and the March rally was just the beginning.

Some onlookers thought the cause was lost from the start. After all, condos line the blocks all around the area and the Woodlawn neighborhood is amongst the most quickly gentrifying neighborhoods on Chicago’s South side. With the University of Chicago encroaching from the north and hundreds of developers marketing the neighborhood as an up-and-coming area close to the lake and the university, low-income residents are being rapidly priced out. As if this weren’t enough, the owner of these buildings, a community organization called The Woodlawn Organization, headed by the powerful Reverend Leon Finney, is a close ally of Mayor Daley and the University of Chicago and at the forefront of courting developers to build high-end housing in the neighborhood.

Despite the odds, a group of committed tenants began working with organizers from the Student/Tenant Organizing Project (STOP) and community members from a new group called People Of Woodlawn (POW). Tenants found out that management was acting illegally, denying them the right to a year’s notice and the right to determine the fate of the buildings before they can be sold off. After a meeting STOP arranged between the tenants and lawyer Steve Mckenzie from the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, tenants went back to their neighbors with two important messages. First, they have the right to stop the buildings from going condo. Second, the only people who can make that happen are the tenants themselves, by organizing a Tenants Association representing at least half of the 100 units in the buildings.

When management caught wind of the tenants’ efforts, they immediately cancelled the meeting they had called with the tenants at which they were to explain move-out details and supposedly discuss the fate of the displaced. Rather than wait for management to come to them, tenants went downtown on the day management was to unveil a ‘neighborhood development plan’ before the mayor. Tenants joined with STOP and POW on July 18 to protest the downtown rollout of a Five Year Plan for Woodlawn’s Development that included no concrete commitments to preserving, improving or expanding affordable housing. The media jumped on the story, sending camera crews to interview tenants in front of the buildings.

“My main question is where are all these people gonna go? You’ve got five buildings, 100 families,” said tenant Robert Woods on Channel 7 nightly news. Referring to recent developments nearby, tenant Cynthia Walker was quoted saying, “Sure it’s affordable housing for those who can afford it, but not for us, who cannot afford it!”

Encouraged by the media attention and a commitment given by the Reverend Finney to negotiate tenants’ demands that he cease all plans to turn the buildings into condos, tenants continued organizing. Chanting, “Land grab, we say no, we live here and we won't go!” tenants joined other community supporters in marching across the entire length of the neighborhood demanding the preservation, improvement and expansion of affordable housing in Woodlawn. When Finney then backed out of his promise to negotiate tenants demands, it became clear to all that a change in strategy was needed.

The mortgage for these buildings, though held by The Woodlawn Organization, is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under their project-based Section 8 program. Ultimately, HUD is responsible for holding management accountable for the condition of the buildings. Tenants decided to step up efforts at getting 50% of their neighbors to join their Kimbark Tenants Association and began meeting with HUD. As tenant Barbara Crump, a 30-year resident of the properties said, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’m helping start a tenants association so we can organize to stay. I know there is something we can do and we won’t be forced out, we will keep our building affordable. The law gives us the right as a tenants association to have final say over what happens to our building.”

The Kimbark Tenants Association (KTA) was founded this September, representing 50% of the tenants of these five buildings. In addition to community-building events such as meetings at the local church and picnics and barbecues, KTA members recently went downtown to meet with officials from HUD. At the meeting, HUD officials confirmed that the Section 8 contract extends through 2009. Tenants are now inviting HUD to attend a public meeting on the state of repairs in the buildings this November.

While it is an everyday occurrence in Chicago for tenants to be displaced and shuffled around without respect for their legal rights, the Kimbark Tenants Association is a shining example of what can be achieved when you organize. Not only are tenants still living in the property and receiving needed subsidies, but they are holding HUD accountable for the buildings’ state of disrepair, building community amongst each other and throwing a wrench in the plans of greedy developers to turn the entire neighborhood into condos.

Matt Ginbserg-Jaeckle and Ebonee Stevenson are active in the Student/Tenant Organizing Project and Kimbark Tenants Association.