The Equity Factor

Displacement on the Lake, Or the Problem With One Massive Chicago Development

A rendering of the Lakeside development on Chicago’s South Side.

Chicago has a grand vision for transforming the city’s South Side. Lakeside, a massive development plan with an estimated 25-45 year timeline — how’s that for a loose deadline? — will turn the former 600-acre U.S. Steel site into a new urban hub. On the land that once housed America’s largest steel mill, developers have promised 14,000 new homes, 17.5 million square feet of retail and commercial space, and a fancy marina on Lake Michigan.

Like most palatial development plans, this one offers the promise of jobs and every eager, wide-eyed developer’s favorite hollow phrase: Innovative living.

But what about the people that live in the neighborhood now and have called the area surrounding the proposed Jetsons-esque development home for years?

Ben Austen had a lengthy article about Chicago’s Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group that cleans up abandoned and foreclosed houses so that homeless people may have a place to live, in this weekend’s Times Magazine. At a barbecue on the South Side near the Lakeside site, Austen — who is writing a book about the former Cabrini-Green housing project — talked to locals about the looming development. “They’ll get rid of us,” one man told Austen. Others expressed fear that what might be good for Lakeside might not be good for locals.

I called Daniel McCaffery, CEO and chairman of McCaffery Interests, the main developer involved with Lakeside, to ask him about the very real possibility that his project will push out many, many people who live there now. Lakeside, which is already in phase one of the development, is receiving city subsidies in the form of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreement. In exchange for the financial support, McCaffery said, 20 percent of the tentatively planned 14,000 units must be designated as affordable housing.

“There’s only going to be displacement if the person decides to give up their home,” he said. “You know, I’d like to be able to tell you something that will make me sound like Superman, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Because if I were to be able to say something to you that says, ‘No, we’re going to keep Sally in George’s rented house,’ how do you think George feels? He’s the one that has made an investment in the area, who knows, maybe for 20 years? Thirty years? Now an opportunity comes along for him to make some money. You can’t be down on George. You know what I mean? But we are not going to do anything to encourage George to rid of Sally, not in the slightest. And, like I said, there will be 20 percent affordable housing.”

This is the sad plight of any large development — the almost inevitable displacement. Density doesn’t necessarily mean affordability. It remains to be seen what Lakeside will look like when it’s finished. But I have to agree with McCaffery: I can’t blame George for wanting to cash in on his investment.

But what about, as McCaffery calls her, Sally? In his article, Austen highlights the very real dichotomy between Chicago’s revitalized downtown and the neighborhoods ringing it to the south and west (Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it a “false dichotomy”). Once Lakeside, which has been a rumored destination for the Obama Library, is finally finished, won’t it just perpetuate more housing inequality?

“There’s no way for me to make sure that people aren’t displaced because that’s a market force, not mine,” McCaffery said. “We have no plan of displacing a single soul, but we do have a plan of including that community that exists there now in shape, make and form into our new community.”

Lakeside sounds like it will be a desirable place to live. But I can’t imagine there will be much room within its curvy buildings for the low-income families who have carved out lives in the shadow of the former steel mill. I don’t want to make McCaffery the villian here because, in truth, he’s just doing what the system asks of him.

It was someone else — the politician negotiating the TIF — who didn’t do his or her job by demanding McCaffery and his partners to do more. If we know market forces are going to drive up rents and subsequently force people out, shouldn’t a new, publicly financed development account for that?

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley writes The Equity Factor column and is based in Brooklyn. Previously, Bill was a features writer at The Daily. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ.com and Vanity Fair, among others. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a B.A. in creative writing and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.

Tags: policy, equity factor, chicago, politics & policy, gentrification, affordable housing, rahm emanuel, development, displacement, tax increment financing