Bob Bank, president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, at Tuesday's picket against proposed affordable housing development Credit: Maya Dukmasova

The chants and slogans from the crowd of what appeared to be more than 100 white protesters who gathered outside Branch Community Church in northwest-side Jefferson Park February 9 to oppose a proposed affordable housing development felt eerily reminiscent of the 1960s. 

“No Section 8!” they shouted. “No Section 8!”

“Cabrini started as vet housing too,” read one sign—a reference to the now mostly demolished Cabrini-Green public housing development.

The more than 200 45th Ward residents inside the semipublic meeting were no less vitriolic, as alderman John Arena and representatives from Full Circle Communities, the project’s nonprofit developer, attempted to explain the vision for the seven-story, 100-unit building, which would house families, veterans, and people with disabilities.

But opponents weren’t having it.

“You are waving veterans in our faces and this has nothing to do with veterans,” one woman shouted to Arena and the developers.

Although some attendees expressed concerns over the size and scale of the development, many protesters’ remarks fell just shy of “We don’t want poor, black families moving into our neighborhood.”

One home owner said she was worried tenant screening wouldn’t prevent future residents “from bringing in every miscreant cousin, nephew, brother, son.” Another said she’s worked with Section 8 voucher holders before. “The behavior never changes,” she said, “and it’s the majority of the participants in these programs.” A female police officer stood up to say that she had moved to Jefferson Park “to keep my children safe.”

Opposition to real estate developments perceived as a conduit for African-American families, especially poor ones, to move into white neighborhoods isn’t new in Chicago. In 1966 white residents of south-side Marquette Park greeted housing integrationists led by Martin Luther King Jr. by hurling bricks and brandishing signs that read “Keep white neighborhoods white.” Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Chicago Housing Authority’s attempts to create scattered-site public housing units in white neighborhoods were also met with rancorous, racist opposition cloaked in concerns about “property values” and “crime.” And throughout the country, opposition to low-income housing construction has long been framed in terms of concerns over density.

Nor is this the first time one of Full Circle’s developments has been met with vehement neighborhood opposition by northwest-side residents who seem to conceive of affordable housing as something meant for people unlike themselves. Though Full Circle has successfully created smaller affordable housing developments in Avondale and Logan Square, last year the company was forced to halt a new development in Portage Park after encountering similar opposition.

A rendering of the proposed 100-unit affordable housing developmentCredit: Full Circle Communities

This proposed development, which would be located near the Jefferson Park Blue Line transportation hub, would consist of apartments ranging from studios to three-bedrooms. Twenty units would be leased at market-rate rents—between $900 and $1,700 per month. Sixty units would be affordable to households making up to 60 percent of area median income, or $46,140, and would rent for between $800 to $1,200 per month. And 20 units would be reserved for households making up to 30 percent of area median income, or $23,070, and rent for between $400 to $600 per month. Thirty units would be wheelchair accessible, and preferential consideration for 50 units will be given to applicants with disabilities and veterans.

Although many of the units will be subsidized and the developers will accept qualifying Section 8 participants as required by city law, Full Circle’s proposal has little in common with old-school CHA public housing—the warped memory of which still haunts many Chicagoans, particularly, it seems, those who never lived there.

At the February 9 meeting, protesters insisted that that the building would be a “project,” even as Full Circle’s Joshua Wilmoth clarified that “this is not public housing.”

A detailed explanation of the company’s rigorous tenant screening procedure didn’t assuage concerns: Every person over 18 is screened and interviewed during the application process, and must appear on the lease. Every adult is also subject to a criminal background check—Full Circle screens for misdemeanors related to drugs, weapons, and property damage in addition to violent felonies and sex offense. The company also collects landlord references from the past five years and checks applicants’ histories for evictions, especially those related to lease violations and property damage. Full Circle also requires income verification and performs a detailed credit check.

“Especially when we have families with children, we’re very sensitive to screening the right way,” says Full Circle vice president Lindsey Haines. “We want to create good neighbors within the building.” Haines also stressed that there are exceptions to all of the company’s criteria and that applicants have an opportunity to appeal if they’re denied.

Although the company’s meticulousness reveals just how close to perfect the poor are expected to be in order to qualify for one of their units in the first place, sarcastic laughter and groans rose from the audience as Wilmoth explained that residents wouldn’t be drug tested.

Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, was outside the February 9 meeting, and said that in 13 years of housing organizing she’s gotten used to not-in-my-back-yard resistance to subsidized housing. But the “white mob” gathered in front of the church, as she described it, was new to her.

“There was a pretty intense, scary energy,” Levinger says. “That was the first time I felt like I needed to physically accompany people in wheelchairs from our coalition.”

Protesters against proposed affordable housing development outside the Branch Community Church February 9Credit: Chicago Housing Initiative

Levinger was also surprised by the degree to which locals seemed convinced that affordable housing would be built to serve undeserving and unwanted outsiders rather than typical Jefferson Park renters. Many neighborhood residents seem sure that they’re not the ones who need this help—despite statistical evidence to the contrary.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, nearly 40 percent of Jefferson Park households rent, and the average renter’s household income is $41,158. And rental prices in the neighborhood have increased steadily over the last decade. According to Chicago Rehab Network data analyzed by Chicago magazine, more than 40 percent of Jefferson Park renters are “rent-burdened,” i.e. spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. And among renters making between $25,000 and $50,000 per year—precisely the households targeted by Full Circle—the burden is even higher: nearly two-thirds are paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Though Full Circle can’t restrict its apartments for existing neighborhood residents, the developers and Arena said they’re confident there won’t be a shortage of local interest.

After the February 9 meeting, protesters were roundly criticized for their thinly veiled prejudice—including by Arena, who said he was shocked by the “level of classist rhetoric” and the “belligerence” of the crowd. In the days that followed, opponents seemed to become aware of the ugly optics of their first rally. Now, although the fervor of the opposition doesn’t seem to have abated, there has been a marked change in its rhetoric.

A group called Residents Against Full Circle Communities Housing Development in Jeff Park called for a picket at Arena’s office Tuesday, asking supporters not to bring signs protesting Section 8 and affordable housing, but to instead focus “on themes such as . . . ‘We’ve Been Silenced,'” the organizers wrote on Facebook. They also suggested signs urging elected officials to “Honor the Gladstone Park plan,” and “4 stories or less,” in reference to a planning department study of the Milwaukee Avenue corridor from the Kennedy Expressway to the city limits released in January. One of its recommendations was that development along the corridor shouldn’t exceed four stories.

Tuesday’s picketers followed these instructions, also brandishing signs that read “Don’t crowd us in,” and arguing that bringing more people to the neighborhood is sure to increase crime. Some opponents didn’t take kindly to Arena’s chastising, and came to the picket with signs reading simply “Lock him up.” Others accused him of profiteering—a charge Arena calmly denies, pointing out that if he had any financial interests in the development he would have had to disclose them to the city’s Board of Ethics.

Determined not to let this rhetorical pivot slip by unnoticed, Chicago Housing Initiative members distributed printouts of Facebook conversations between various members of the opposition in which they used racially charged language to decry the proposed development, saying Jefferson Park would become “Englwood (sic) North” and that the development “will bring nothing but bad news and more criminals.”

Ben Goldsmith, a CHI organizer and Jefferson Park resident, says that Arena’s other transit-oriented development proposals in the neighborhood didn’t galvanize nearly as much opposition, despite being potentially much taller than the Full Circle building.

“The way that the opposition [to the new development] was set up was a lot of race-baiting, ableism, and classism,” he says. “They built a base of opposition based on prejudice and then tried to change the headline once the base was mobilized.”

Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Bob Bank, who at the first protest brandished a sign that read “Jeff Park is not Rogers Park,” denied any strategic shift in tone at Tuesday’s picket. As the crowd around him chanted “Everybody’s welcome / Four stories or less!” Bank argued that Jefferson Park residents are primarily concerned with protecting the semi-suburban feel of their neighborhood.

“John Arena has twisted the truth and tried to paint everybody as a racist and a bigot because that makes him look good and us look bad, and that’s not true at all,” Bank said. “We are consistent, year after year: We don’t want tall buildings with high density.”

Full Circle will need many more months to finalize financing for the development, and Arena still needs City Council approval to upzone the lot. But he says he plans to seek it, despite the backlash. Arena believes beefing up density near the el will ultimately be beneficial for the neighborhood, by helping it attract new businesses to the empty storefronts dotting Milwaukee Avenue.

“In no way do I feel intimidated that this project is not right for Jefferson Park,” Arena says. “I’m interested in honoring the mixed community that I have—the community that has mixed incomes, mixed demographics, mixed nationalities.”

The vocal opposition, he argues, isn’t representative of the whole community.