Canadian developer Onni Group changed long-approved redevelopment plans for Atrium Village, concentrating most affordable housing in one aging building. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

When the redevelopment of Atrium Village, a Near North Side community squeezed between Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast, was first announced in 2014, it seemed too good to be true: Onni Group, a Canadian real estate company was taking over the aging, 309-unit mixed-income development and building luxury skyscrapers on the site. But all the units of affordable housing were to be preserved in the new, 1,500-unit complex.

Now, nearly four years after Onni purchased Atrium Village from a consortium of churches that built it in the 1970s, tenants have filed suit with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They claim that the developer has not only backpedaled on its commitment to preserve the original affordable housing unit count on the site, but is acting with discriminatory intent by planning to concentrate most of the affordable units in one old Atrium Village midrise that won’t be rehabbed or integrated into the rest of the complex. The tenants are also suing the city of Chicago for abetting this process.

“My expectations were that everything was going to be rebuilt and that people currently living in the midrise building would be living in the new buildings,” says Toni Pullen, who’s lived at Atrium Village since 1992 and is a member of the Atrium Village Tenant Association, which is suing Onni and the city with the help of attorneys from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

“We feel like the bald-headed stepchildren,” Pullen adds. “The majority of the people in the midrise building, as I see it, are people of a certain income level and of a certain race. We’re not at all pleased about this because it’s like all of a sudden we are being cast aside, people who have been here 20, 30, 40 years, they’ve raised their families here. This is our community and now we’re feeling like guests. And we are not happy about this.”

Onni’s changes to its development plans were not just a matter of saying one thing then doing another. The proposal had already been approved by the Department of Planning and Development and the City Council when, as the tenants’ suit alleges, in fall 2016 Onni began asking the city for significant changes to the plan. Rather than a phased demolition of the entire Atrium Village complex and dispersal of affordable housing units throughout the new high-rises, Onni now wanted to keep the old nine-story building as a 211-unit, all-affordable-housing building. It said there would be no affordable units at all in its first luxury high-rise, and that 89 would be scattered in the second and a third high-rise to be built later. The overall number of affordable units on the site would be reduced to 260.

E-mails from DPD staff in October 2016 expressed “concern regarding the proposal to retain the mid-rise as segregated housing,” according to the tenants’ complaint. However, by February 2017 “DPD capitulated to Onni’s demands and approved the retention of the mid-rise and the segregation of the affordable housing units into one building.”

The complaint also details a February 2017 meeting between the developer and Atrium Village tenants at which Onni’s senior development manager Brian Brodeur allegedly said that “midrise residents would not have access to the amenities in the newly constructed high rises because to do so would pose a ‘security risk.'”

Brodeur did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. Reached by phone, Department of Planning and Development spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said he had no comment. It could take as long as 60 days for Onni and the city to be served with the tenants’ suit.

The tenants say that Onni’s actions go against the terms of purchase for the Atrium Village complex—which came with a restrictive covenant that committed the new owner to maintaining all of the affordable housing units. And, they claim, the developer is violating the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which requires that affordable units built in new developments be evenly distributed throughout the site. The lawsuit—filed as an administrative complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Opportunity—claims that Onni and the city may thus be violating the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

One possible motivation for Onni’s decision to cluster most of the affordable units in one old building is that the mortgage on the midrise is fully paid off; if developers can rent out fewer of the new luxury units at affordable prices, they stand to gain in the long run. Attorneys from the Shriver Center also think the move could be a matter of image management.

“They’re trying to keep a certain image in the new construction, and unfortunately affordable renters do not fit—families, people of color, people with disabilities,” says Emily Coffey, one of the lawyers representing the tenants.

“It’s very obvious. If you are not young, white, upwardly mobile, then you are not in one of those [new] buildings,” adds Pullen. “It does not take an idiot to figure that out.”

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) had expressed concern as early as fall 2015 that the developer would try to backpedal on the requirement that 20 percent of its new complex be reserved as affordable housing, in compliance with the restrictive covenant and the ordinance. “They’re trying to get out of it. It’s not right,” Burnett told DNAInfo in November 2015. “They’re trying to wine and dine me. I’m like ‘Nah, just do the affordable housing.'”

Burnett could not immediately be reached for comment.

For decades, Atrium Village was an integrated, mixed-income community consisting of apartments and town houses with as many as three bedrooms. Located on the corner of Division and Wells, just a few blocks from the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, it offered an alternative model for affordable housing. Rent in the development was subsidized by HUD, but the buildings were owned and operated by a nonprofit run by four local churches.

The full text of the tenants’ complaint is available here.

When it was completed in 1979, Atrium Village was on the cutting edge of government-subsidized housing.
When it was completed in 1979, Atrium Village was on the cutting edge of government-subsidized housing.Credit: Sun-Times Print Collection