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Obama Center neighbors still waiting for housing protection



CHICAGO — Less than 3 miles from where former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama broke ground last week on their long-awaited presidential center on the South Side of Chicago, Tahiti Hamer lies awake at night thinking about the limited time she and her family have left in the neighborhood where she’s lived her whole life.

Following the announcement of the center in 2015, neighborhoods adjacent to the 19-acre planned site have seen skyrocketing rents and housing prices, and Hamer, 42, a single mother of three, is one of several facing displacement.

Hamer, a teacher at a local YMCA, said she’s tried to buy a home for the last two years, but it’s been out of reach in her neighborhood. She found a house she could afford 12 miles south.

“I do not want to leave. I want to stay, but I’m barely keeping my head above water now,” she said. Hamer’s rent has gone up from $800 to $1,000, and she said her landlord has already told her there’s another $100 hike coming because the area is “coming back up.”

“It’s sad that the place that I’ve lived my whole life I can’t stay in anymore,” she said. “And once I leave, it will be impossible to ever come back. It’s the same story with so many people in this community.”

Despite the Obama Presidential Center being built for the benefit of historically underprivileged communities of color, housing experts say without timely and robust housing protections, it may become a catalyst for displacement, pushing out the residents it intended to help.

The location of the ambitious project was chosen to honor the former first couple’s roots and boasts a library, museum and activity center costing more than $500 million.

Demand has already boomed, with housing costs increasing at a higher rate in areas surrounding the proposed center than citywide since 2016, according to a 2019 study by the University of Illinois Chicago.

Much of the existing community is low-income, with many paying more than they can afford for their monthly housing costs, the study reported, and “eviction rates are some of the highest in the city with South Shore being the highest, averaging 1,800 a year, which is about 9 percent of renters.”

“This very much follows the script of how gentrification works,” said Winifred Curran, a professor of geography and sustainable urban development at DePaul University. “The Obama center is kind of like a signal to developers to get real estate now for cheap, and then the profit potential is huge. That’s what gentrification is, and unless you very specifically do things to keep housing affordable to make property accessible to long-term residents, you’re going to see displacement.”

Tahiti Hamer and her children in front of their home in the South Shore neighborhood in Chicago.Courtesy Tahiti Hamer

The battle between residents who live around the site and the city of Chicago has been ongoing for the last six years, but many say they are still waiting for significant aid.

Dixon Romeo, a lifelong South Shore resident and organizer with theObama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, a resident-based group formed in 2016 to help fight displacement, said residents are not against the Obama center but instead are looking for help, so they will be around to enjoy it.

“How can we benefit from it if we’re not there anymore?” he said. “This is the community that sent President Obama to Springfield. This is the community that sent him to the Senate. This is the community that sent him to the White House, and we should be the community that gets to stay for the presidential center.”

After intense pushback from the coalition, the city passed the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance last year, which promises to help one neighborhood, which sits directly across from the site, with $4.5 million in affordable housing programs, a requirement that at least 30 percent of new apartments be made affordable to “very low-income households” and a provision that allows renters a “right of first refusal” if their landlord decides to sell the building, among other things.

But Dixon, 27, said residents still haven’t seen any significant changes with the ordinance and that it falls short by not including South Shore and other surrounding neighborhoods that are also feeling financial impacts from the center. He, along with the coalition, is asking the city to implement protections for other neighborhoods.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office did not return requests for comment by NBC News.

An aerial view shows the proposed site for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park on May 13, 2020.Zbigniew Bzdak / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
A digital rendering shows a north-facing view of the Obama Presidential Center campus in Jackson Park in Chicago.The Obama Foundation

While more affordable housing is always a good thing, the first step is to make sure people who already have affordable housing don’t lose it, Curran said.

“A lot of times we’re playing a cat-and-mouse gentrification game. Something happens, causes a big spike in rents, people get displaced, and then all of a sudden the city says, ‘Oh, my God, we should have done something with affordable housing,’” she said.

Time is running out. The longer the city drags its feet in providing affordable housing, the more people will be displaced, while gentrification just makes the land more expensive — which means the affordable housing budget will cover fewer units, she said.

“If you’re going to do these things, you have to do them right away because you lose momentum, and at a certain point, what happens is that all the activists who fought for these things get displaced themselves,“ she said. “So they have no one keeping the city accountable for their promises.”

While rent control would be a strong solution to help renters with low income, Illinois prohibits municipalities from passing rent control ordinances under the Rent Control Preemption Act passed in 1997. What they can do is offer property tax breaks to help landlords who already are providing affordable housing, and other subsidies for utilities and bills, she said.

Stacey Sutton, a professor of urban planning and policy and the University of Illinois Chicago, said the issue around the Obama center is not novel for any city, and it’s the same lower-income Black and brown people that disproportionately bear the burden when development takes place largely because class and race are so intertwined.

A 2020 study by Stanford University showed Black residents have more constraints and fewer options of neighborhoods they can move to compared to their white counterparts and that minority communities disproportionately feel the negative effects of gentrification.

“We think of the neighborhoods that we may visit and enjoy, but there’s a full erasure of the history of a lot of those places. Years later, we’ll look back and we won’t remember who lived there, and that’s the erasure,” Sutton said.

“I think the problem with large-scale development, there’s always some downsides, but you try to mitigate the downside. You try to mitigate the adverse effects. And so there are better ways of doing that, and this was not a better way of doing it right,” she said.

Tahiti Hamer is still holding out hope that she’ll be able to stay in the neighborhood that she feels is a part of her, but she knows time is running thin for her.

“I feel like I’m being forced out,” she said. “How can I not afford a home in my own community where I lived for 42 years? It’s unreal and just so unfair.”

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