When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Chicago in 1965, his mission was to end the slum housing conditions in which many black residents were forced to live. For 17 months, he fought boycotts, rallies and marches, a campaign that ultimately led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, shortly after his assassination.
Yet more than five decades later, housing advocates say Chicago is still struggling to provide adequate and affordable housing for all of its residents.
Abraham Lacy, president and CEO of the Far South Community Development Corporation, said the city’s approach to building housing has changed since the days of King’s campaign.
“Affordable housing is still in crisis, especially in the Black and Latino communities,” Lacy said. “We are still short of 150,000 units of affordable housing. It seems that now there is more effort to build in prosperous areas. … Fifty years ago, about 70% of housing estates were built for working-class families. Now compare that to today, now it’s only 8% because we’re only building in areas where most of the wealthy [people are] living right now.”
JoAnn Kenner is the president of London Towne Houses, a cooperative housing development on the South Side that was built shortly after King was in Chicago. She said that at the time, finding an attractive, well-built home that she and her husband could afford as newlyweds was “a breath of fresh air.”
“There was a red line being produced,” Kenner said. “You had a specific area that black people could live in on the south or west side. Many of the neighborhoods we can live in now were not available to us. … I didn’t understand cooperative housing at the time. It was really a good place to start.”
Kenner and her husband stayed in London Towne and raised their daughter there. Kenner said cooperative housing is an underutilized option for people looking for something they can afford.
“We call it having a trouble-free home,” Kenner said. “We have no profit. Our mission statement is to provide attractive, affordable housing to low- and moderate-income families and whatever constitutes a family these days. … So our members buy a piece of the corporation. And as a member of the corporation, they have a say in the governance and operation of the cooperative.”
In her work at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, Holistic Social Services Director Robin Moore helps formerly incarcerated young men rebuild their lives. That includes finding housing.
“With the law being involved, you’re already dealing with your criminal record, your record,” Moore said. “For many homeowners, housing those coming out of the justice system becomes a fear. It just adds to the barriers for them to access housing.”
Moore said everyone in the city has an interest in making sure housing is available to everyone.
“When you’re homeless, you’re definitely dealing with those mental stressors that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” Moore said. “There’s nothing like seeing a young man…who’s off the grid, walk into his first apartment and receive the keys to that apartment. Because what he does is literally change the trajectory of his life and the direction in which they’re headed.”
While acknowledging the challenges city government faces in building more housing, Lacy said the city’s future depends on making it a place where people of all income levels can live comfortably.
“These are decades of problems that you have to unravel,” Lacy said. “But I can still say that it’s still a challenge to get affordable housing, as opposed to what people, the other type of housing style on the North Side, is still a huge challenge. But it’s worth the kind of risk to do it. Because when we’re decimating our communities without affordable housing, you start to lose neighborhood services, we start to lose density. We lost an entire neighborhood due to the lack of population, because we don’t have adequate housing. … When you don’t focus on those things, the community will start to collapse.”