Affordable Housing Doesn’t Need To Be Scarce…It’s A Choice

“53 homes. Imagine them lined up as houses on the street. You’re basically moving a whole city block out of the neighborhood.”
-Hector, Kimball Tenants Union member

In Albany Park, Chicago, the Kimball Tenants Union (KTU) has been fighting back against their slumlords, [redacted], since June of this year. They’re also up against an affordable housing crisis that’s ravaging the entire city. Their 53-unit building is located at 4841–4853 N Kimball, just a block from the Kimball Brown line. The building had fallen into disrepair due to decades of neglect by its previous landlord, who assumed that if he kept the rents low he could completely ignore the property. Tenants dealt with dangerous and disgusting conditions like mold, rats, faulty electricity, leaky plumbing, and harassment by an abusive maintenance worker, [redacted].

When [redacted], the owner of [redacted], purchased the property in January, he knew that the building was in such poor condition. He was also aware that the rents were all half or lower than “market rate” for the neighborhood. After buying the property, [redacted] waited four months to inform residents that they would need to move out by August 31 or be evicted. During this time, maintenance worker Delgado became a henchman for [redacted]— he pressures tenants to leave with verbal harassment, enters their units illegally and unannounced, and does shoddy or nonexistent maintenance work.

Many of the residents did leave — but not all. Six longtime residents are fighting for their right to dignified housing. These tenants are resisting their unjust eviction because they have few other options to remain in Albany Park, the neighborhood they have called home for years, where affordable housing stock is dwindling rapidly as a result of gentrification.

“I’ve been living here for 21 years and I just want a chance to sit at the table and talk. I think I deserve at least that,” said KTU member Clark.

KTU members have worked together since June to get [redacted] to talk to them as a group and find a solution, but were met with silence until eviction actions were initiated against them last month. Initial conversations with Stark’s lawyers have resulted in shady lowball cash offers with the implication that they would have to leave the neighborhood. Stark doesn’t care that when your rent is half the “market rate,” and that’s all you can pay, there’s no amount of saving you can do to secure an apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood like Albany Park.

Leo, a 74 year-old Filipino-American has been struggling with multiple application and credit check fees, for apartments in distant neighborhoods and at significantly higher rents:

I’m really afraid I’ll become homeless. We have to fight.

The tenants are committed to staying in their homes at affordable rents, with safe and dignified conditions. While the neighborhood’s affordable housing stock ages, deteriorates, or is snatched up by gentrifying companies, landlords and developers tell tenants that if they can’t afford the rising rents, they must either accept bad building conditions or leave the area altogether. This is where the crux of the problem is: Albany Park is so lacking in affordable housing that there are no options for these tenants that don’t include moving into another run-down building, which could just be sold to another developer at any time. ATU has seen this story play out again and again in Albany Park. Counting only buildings we have organized with since 2016, we have seen upwards of 200 affordable units lost to “renovictions” — developers purchasing buildings with the intention of evicting its working class tenants, doing renovations, and skyrocketing rents.

Mario has lived at the 4843 N. Kimball building for 13 years.

Under Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), developments that meet certain conditions must set aside 10% of their residential units as affordable. When KTU proposed the idea of keeping some of the units in the 53-unit building affordable, Stark (via their lawyer) replied that they were not only unwilling to make this basic concession, but that [redacted], as a rule, avoids having to set aside affordable units in his developments at all. KTU’s building is a perfect example of how this ordinance fails: since Stark is receiving no public funds for the development and does not need a zoning change, there is no mechanism to protect the building’s residents and surrounding community from the harmful impact of their plans.

Without the resistance of KTU, Stark would’ve been free to eliminate a massive chunk of long-time affordable housing in one fell swoop — no community meetings, no input from community groups, and certainly no consideration for the tenants. Even the various attempts to strengthen the ARO, such as a 2017 ordinance which applied to certain pilot zones and Chicago Housing Initiative’s proposed Development for All ordinance, would have failed to curb Stark’s attack on Albany Park.

Of course, even if KTU’s building was subject to the ARO, [redacted] has made it clear he would use his considerable wealth and influence to fight any and all affordability requirements. Is this the type of developer we need in our neighborhood? With the recent groundbreaking on a new affordable housing building going up in Ald. Rosa’s 35th Ward, we wonder how Deb Mell, the 33rd Ward alderman, will respond to Stark’s callous disregard for affordable units in lieu of higher profits.

Mell is a sponsor of the Development for All ordinance, which is an important step for preserving affordability in Chicago in the long-term, but the fact is that her low-income constituents are being displaced now and can’t wait for a law (which wouldn’t even apply to them) to potentially be passed sometime in the future. KTU and the ATU call on Ald. Mell, along with neighborhood groups like Albany Park Neighbors, to take a public stand against Stark Chicago, and demand that they work with their tenants to find a just solution, rather than evicting them.

As February’s aldermanic election nears, we have contacted 33rd Ward candidates calling on them to speak out against Stark’s treatment of KTU and the affordable housing crisis caused by similar mass “renovictions” in the ward. As of now, Rossana Rodriguez and Katie Sieracki have publicly stated their support for the KTU, but Alderman Mell has remained silent. Rodriguez also has gone as far to commit to not accepting campaign donations from developers, an important platform position which the ATU calls on Sieracki, Mell, and other politicians to replicate.

A snapshot of some [redacted] owned properties in Chicago

When [redacted]’s lawyer informed us of his plans to raise rents at 4841–4853 N. Kimball to around $1,250 for 1-bedrooms, we found it infuriating that even with so many high-rent units in the building (not to mention the dozens of other properties he owns) he refuses to keep a small percentage of the units affordable for residents who have lived there for decades. [redacted] assumes that a quick cash payout will get tenants to leave quietly. But these tenants are dealing with disabilities, serious chronic health issues, or simply limited income and none of them will be able to remain in their community unless they can continue to pay an affordable rent.

KTU’s demand is as simple and practical as it is moral: Stark, with all the profit from your many properties across the city, you can afford to allow a few tenants to stay at affordable rates, as an act of good faith towards the diverse community that gave the property its value in the first place.

If Stark refuses, we can only turn to Albany Park’s community and leaders to compel [redacted] to do what’s right. Give these tenants the dignity they deserve.

The Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) is an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left. As an independent collective based in Chicago, we strategize together to defend and enforce our right to dignified housing. We believe that housing is a human right, not a commodity! We fight for an end to all of evictions, and for community control of housing through the building of popular power.

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