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How can Uptown hold on to its affordability?

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A luxury developer sets its sights on renovating the neighborhood’s historic buildings.

Carmen Troesser

Some years ago, Sam Walker saw a band at one of Uptown’s many concert venues, and the neighborhood made an impression on him. It was much closer to the lake than where he lived at the time, there was lots to do, and it had housing at prices that the IT professional, who’s now 31, could afford.

In the summer of 2017, Walker signed a lease on a $1,050-per-month studio apartment at Lawrence House, a newly-redeveloped 12-story Art Deco building a block east of the Aragon Ballroom with 84 units and a clean, refurbished 1920s decor.

The building was a former single-room occupancy hotel that reportedly had previously rented rooms for between $350 and $500 a month to primarily low-income tenants. This type of housing is dwindling in Chicago—perhaps nowhere more so than in Uptown.

In the former hotel, there were roughly 300 tenants that moved out during the restoration process. Some were members of the Peoples’ Church of Chicago, according to Rev. Susan Harlow. Many of the former tenants who were primarily African American were unable to find other affordable housing anywhere else on the North Side.

“What we pride ourselves on as a church is that we’re multiracial,” she said. “We can’t say that as much anymore.”

In the last decade or so, Uptown’s demographics have changed. The most recent Census figures show that the neighborhood’s demographics break down to 54.5 percent white, 18.1 percent African American and 10 percent Asian. Between 2000 and 2016, the neighborhood’s African American population reportedly declined by 20 percent, while its Asian population dropped by 35 percent and its Hispanic population lost 45 percent over the same span. Its white population rose over that period by about 12 percent.

In addition to this, Uptown’s redevelopment has focused largely on luxury housing.

One of the most active developers in the neighborhood, Cedar Street Companies, was responsible for renovating the Lawrence House. It purchased the property in 2013 and currently owns eight properties and over 450 rental units in the neighborhood, according to Chief Development Officer, Mark Heffron.

The Lawrence House falls under the company’s brand of luxury apartments called The Flats. It’s heavily marketed to young professionals through glossy magazines touting the area’s diversity and its local businesses. The high-end, full service building saw glitzy improvements: An original skylight was shipped off to Iowa be carefully cleaned and restored, a derelict pool was fixed up and refilled, and off the building’s lobby, a bar called Larry’s was added.

“When I first moved in I was like, ‘they did a really beautiful job renovating everything,” Walker said. “It’s a beautiful design. Can’t knock ‘em on that.”

Cedar Street, named for a tony Gold Coast street, wasn’t founded in Uptown, but it now has office space there. Heffron said this is a key piece of the company’s strategy. “We definitely feel like we have a feel for the pulse of the neighborhood and what its residents are into,” he said.

As the firm’s late cofounder, Jay Michael, told Crain’s Chicago Business in 2013, “We see a lot of single people that are moving into the city that want great housing.”

Last spring, Cedar Street bought the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank Building (now known by the name of its former owner, Bridgeview Bank), for $18.7 million. Its roster of tenants includes many locally-focused nonprofit organizations, some of which fear they will be unable to stay in the building if it’s converted to luxury rental housing.

Heffron said Cedar Street is looking at plans that involve retaining some of the Bridgeview Bank Building’s office tenants after the firm renovates the property. While he declined to provide figures on possible rent increases for tenants that remain, he said more news on the building’s future can be expected by this summer, but was careful to note that “we’re gonna lose some tenants for sure.”

Uptown United, the neighborhood’s economic development organization, is a tenant at the building. Executive Director Martin Sorge said he’s spoken to most of the other tenants to offer help finding new space within the neighborhood should they need or want it. One of those is Chicago Community Learning Center, a school which provides medical training. He said his organization recently helped find them space elsewhere within the neighborhood.

But, Sorge acknowledged, there’s an expectation that some may not be able to stay. “For some folks, if it doesn’t make sense for them to be in Uptown, we’re really sad to lose them but we want them to do what’s best for their organization,” even if that means they must leave the neighborhood.

Residents have noticed the quick changes in Uptown. When Cedar Street purchased the Bridgeview Bank building that investment concerned some residents as nonprofit tenants were pushed out. A petition aimed at pressuring Cedar Street to adhere to a Community Benefits Agreement, has been circulated by ONE Northside since December and has over 250 signatories, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

“That seemed so shameless,” Walker said. “This is a developer that uses the word community a lot. But here you have a building that’s packed to the gills with community resources and you tell them to get the fuck out.”

Activists are concerned that the recent wave of luxury rental housing is accelerating an affordability crisis. Rents for studios at The Draper, a new Cedar Street development on Broadway in Uptown, for example, start at about $1,200 a month, and a two-bedrooms there can climb above $2,900 per month. From 2012 to 2015, rent increases in Uptown for a two-bedroom apartment were among the lowest in the city, and Rent Cafe pegs the neighborhood’s average rent, at $1,174, or 40 percent less than in the city as a whole.

What’s happening in Uptown isn’t new—advocates are fighting for more affordable housing across the city and especially in neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Humboldt Park. Chicago faces a lack of affordable places to live and it isn’t getting any easier to find for low-income residents.

Aside from getting Cedar Street to agree to a CBA, there isn’t much residents can do to prevent a luxury developer from building an approved project. However, a new piece of legislation, the Development for All ordinance, could help increase the number of affordable units.

While Uptown might not always remain as affordable as it is now, the ordinance tweaks the city’s existing Affordable Requirement Ordinance by eliminating the “in-lieu fee” developers can pay to opt out of including affordable units in their project. It also opens up affordable housing to more types of residents and increases the percentage of required affordable units. The support from this legislation could give gentrifying neighborhoods, like Uptown, a leg up in the fight to preserve their communities.