Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from City Bureau’s recently published 32-page guide containing original reporting, illustrations and information for Chicago residents about Community Benefits Agreements.
Out of years of reporting, research and relationships with community members, City Bureau has built “Will That New Development Benefit Your Community? The People’s Guide to Community Benefits Agreements and Alternatives” to inform, engage and equip Chicago residents to be active participants in the city of Chicago’s development process.
In this guide, City Bureau explores pathways to equitable development and the tools that enable that work. We dig deep into Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) and how they are created. We also provide case studies and speak to community residents, local organizations, legal experts and other people creating CBAs across the country.
Who gets to have input when a big developer moves into a neighborhood? Southside Recycling (formerly known as General Iron), the MAT Asphalt plant and Amazon warehouses are just a few recently proposed or built real estate developments on the South and West Sides of Chicago. Aside from all being located in poor and working class neighborhoods of color, these developments also pose potential health risks. Other developments may not pose a health risk, but provoke fear of gentrification and eventual displacement.
City Bureau has been reporting and documenting how developers and the city of Chicago engage community residents when developments come into South and West Side communities. Frustration with a lack of input into the development process—and a lack of quality news and information around this process—has been a top concern cited by City Bureau partners, program participants and sources for years.
Residents often do not learn about new developments until after construction has commenced, which does not give people enough time to have a say about a development or negotiate terms that actually benefit them. Residents think that the overall development process is purposefully made complicated and inaccessible to them. Historically, this has resulted in environmental and health impacts, gentrification and displacement of people of color.
In 2019, City Bureau hosted a Public Newsroom workshop in the East Garfield Park neighborhood to discuss how communities can have more input into local development. Several community leaders cited a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as a helpful framework and tool. A CBA is a legally binding contract between a developer and residents that includes commitments the developer will make to the neighborhood, in exchange for the community’s support. CBAs allow residents to advocate for their own interests by directly negotiating with developers and creating a mechanism for enforcing those commitments. Residents told City Bureau that they wished more information and skill-sharing opportunities were available around CBAs and other community development strategies.
One of the nation’s first CBAs was created over 20 years ago when the Staples Center, now known as Crypto.com Stadium and best known for hosting the Los Angeles Lakers, was proposed in Los Angeles. Madeline Janis was one of the lead negotiators representing community groups. She likens the scope of the development to the rehabilitation of Times Square in New York and notes that it would have razed mostly low-income housing in the area. “It was going to destroy a lot of people’s lives,” she remembers.
At first, there was a big effort to stop the project completely. “[We] had just been starting to think, ‘What if we turn this around rather than try to stop things that are going to be really difficult to stop?’” she says. Ultimately, many organizations and residents came together to dream up how the developer could meet their needs through an agreement. “We had walls of rooms covered with all the things that people imagined could be achieved,” says Janis. After seven months of negotiations, the project sailed through with no opposition, no lawsuits and years of compliance by the developer. Now, Janis is executive director of Jobs to Move America, a strategic policy center that, among other initiatives, helps communities organize CBAs across the country.
This zine was created by City Bureau, with the input of many community organizers and development experts, to inform, engage and equip Chicago residents to be active participants in the development process.
This is not to say that CBAs are the solution for every type of development. We also spoke with experts about the challenges and alternatives to CBAs—for instance, passing laws that will ensure community input for all developments, or ways for communities to resist incoming developments entirely. We include a guest essay by Clifford Helm, attorney and CBA expert at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who cites the need for big-picture reform at the city level, beyond project-by-project solutions like CBAs. The city as a whole needs to acknowledge the impact that racist and otherwise inequitable development have had in creating a tale of two cities in Chicago, he argues.
“There have been policies and forces for hundreds of years that have tried to push us out of this country, push us out of our neighborhoods and push us out of existence,” says Christian Diaz, housing director of Logan Square Neighborhood Association and one of the organizers of Elevated Chicago’s Equitable Development Ambassadors program, which aims to educate residents about the development process and how to influence it.
Diaz wants to flip the narrative that the community is not powerful enough to understand how development works or to influence what their communities look like. “We’re not victims,” he says. “Despite Chicago’s history of disinvestment and segregation, we’re taking these challenges head-on.”
The People’s Guide
City Bureau’s Will That New Development Benefit Your Community? The People’s Guide to Community Benefits Agreements and Alternatives informs, engages and equips Chicago residents to be active participants in the development process. Want to share this zine with your neighbors? You can read the full version and order print copies in English and Spanish at citybureau.org/cba