Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes a significant portion of East Garfield Park, recently sounded the alarm on the gentrification on the West Side.

During an Aug. 1 meeting of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Housing & Real Estate, Burnett wound up discussing how to improve housing stock and businesses without triggering displacement caused by gentrification. 

Burnett said that he wanted to be proactive and put in affordable housing before gentrification reaches further into East Garfield Park and keeps going west.

Austin Weekly News reached out to community stakeholders and leaders to get their take on the idea. The responses this newspaper received varied widely, either suggesting different approaches or wondering whether the city could realistically do anything to avert displacement. 

During the Aug. 1 meeting, Burnett said that the issues some of the other aldermen were describing may not touch East Garfield Park yet, but he didn’t want to wait until they did.

“Gentrification is coming that way [westward],” he said. “And my challenge is, if we wait until gentrification get there, to put affordable low-income [housing] in the area, then it’s almost too late. So we want them to build affordable housing out west, where income is low right now.”

Burnett said that he is already observing gentrification affecting the eastern portions of East Garfield Park that are part of his ward.

“There are houses selling for $500,000 already,” he said. “Most of those people who own their homes are going to sell their homes and make money off of it and they’re going to encourage renters to move out, so they can sell their properties and charge higher rents.”

Burnett said that in East Garfield Park gentrification “is up to Kedzie [Avenue]” and he believed that Austin would see gentrification in the near future due to its proximity to Oak Park. He also argued that, due to how much vacant land there is on the West Side, there are more opportunities to build affordable housing than on the North Side.

In a follow-up interview after the meeting, Burnett said that he was specifically talking about government-owned housing, saying that while the Affordable Requirements Ordinance can compel developers to put affordable units in their buildings, there is only so much the ordinance do.

At the same time, Burnett told his colleagues that homeowners who are in the community have to take responsibly for their part in the process, too.

“African-American aldermen, you get those comments, ‘You’re moving all those white people to the neighborhood, and they’re moving us out,” he said.  “And I always say, ‘White people wouldn’t move in if black people didn’t sell their homes.'” 

Maria Hernandez, of West Garfield Park, is one of the activists for the #NoCopAcademy campaign. She and Burnett vehemently disagreed on the issue of putting in the new emergency services training center in West Garfield Park. But she felt that the alderman was onto something in this case. Putting in more affordable housing is a good idea, she said, and not just in order to avert displacement.

“Everywhere I look, people are struggling with housing insecurity,” Hernandez said. “A lot of people are homeless and would be eligible for housing that would [be] available.”

Linda Gartz, the author of a memoir, “Redlined,” grew up in West Garfield Park and still has some connections to the area.

In a recent interview, she said that gentrification is a difficult subject, and she wasn’t sure there was any way to avert displacement. She expressed some concern that affordable housing tends to be met with resistance. She cited several recent controversies over affordable housing on the Far Northwest Side as examples.

Ultimately, Gartz said, given the profound negative effect redlining had on Chicago and other cities, any attempt to avert displacement should be considered carefully.

“How can you ever undo some of the wrongs governments have done?” she mused. “Because the government created redlining. That was social engineering. Now, we’re trying to undo it. Yet, every step is fraught. That is an issue.”

Activist Melvin Cox has been working to ensure that East Garfield Park residents and businesses would benefit from whatever development comes to the neighborhood. What the West Side needs, Cox argued, is housing that is suitable for the needs of working and lower-middle class families.

“[What] we need for our community, on the West Side, is housing in that $900 to $1500 a month range, whether it’s [rent or monthly mortgage payment],” he said. “We need the ability to purchase two-bedroom or three-bedroom homes, with modern, updated attributes — walk-in units, [in-home] washers and dryers, central heat and air.”

On the West Side, Cox argued, the apartments, condominiums or homes that have those attributes and cost under $1,500 a month are hard to come by. The housing that does exist is either geared toward residents with Housing Choice vouchers or is too expensive for many families.

 “We’re talking about households [with] incomes that are between $75,000 and $200,000 a year,” Cox said. “Those household formations, whether [they] are single-income or two-income households, those are households that want to live on the West Side, but there’s no incentive for [them].”

Having those families, he argued, was vital, since these are the families that will send their kids to schools, and will be able to spend money in corner stores and provide a customer base for larger chains, such as Walgreens.

“Now, [the businesses] say, ‘It’s worth opening a bank in this area, it’s worth opening grocery stores in this area,'” he said. “You can’t open those businesses without that household formation.”


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...