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The Bloomingdale Arts Building sheds its anti-gentrification mission

A project created to protect artists from displacement joins the force it was meant to fight.

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The Bloomingdale Arts Building - FREDERICK J. NACHMAN
  • Frederick J. Nachman
  • The Bloomingdale Arts Building

Back in 2001, when Laura Weathered was struggling through construction on the Acme Artists' Community housing development, there was a lot of talk about protecting artists from the gentrification that dogged them.

The project was driven by a familiar story: rising rents were forcing artists out of neighborhoods they'd turned from dicey to hip. Acme would give these poor urban nomads the stability that only home ownership could provide. That, and a community of like-minded noble souls determined to keep the project affordable for the artists who'd follow.

In her job as executive director of the Near Northwest Arts Council, Weathered was developing the project, converting a dilapidated onetime metal-stamping factory at 2418 W. Bloomingdale—next to an abandoned railroad track—into 25 units.

As Jeff Huebner reported in a comprehensive piece on artists' housing for the Reader, an initial plan to make the building a co-op was scrapped in favor of a condominium because that was easier to finance.

The city contributed $200,000 to the $3.2 million rehab project, and buyers were able to get additional subsidies of up to $30,000 (in the form of loans that would be forgiven across a ten-year period) for each unit. Artists with as little as $3,000 for a down payment were able to purchase the condominiums, which were priced from $90,000 to $130,000.

And Weathered assured Huebner that Acme would be a bulwark against gentrification for generations to come. "It's set up so that units will remain affordable for 99 years," he reported. A cap on equity had been written into its bylaws: the resale price for any unit would be the original price plus a limited allowance for improvements and a modest annual increase tied to the consumer price index. The original buyers would pass their good fortune forward to the artists of the future.

But last November, just 13 years after the first residents moved into what is now known as the Bloomingdale Arts Building, that part of the bylaws was dumped. The owners voted to remove restrictions on future sales, allowing them to be priced at whatever a notably hot market will bear for a building advantageously located at an entrance to the 606.

Former board president David Rocco Facchini, who moved to California last August and has rented his Bloomingdale unit, blames the outcome on "Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent property tax hike" along with escalating property values around the 606.

Facchini, whose monthly payment roughly doubled, says the jump took him and others by surprise, because they'd been given the impression that the building had some sort of protected status that would shield it from large tax increases. He was disappointed when another owner, Michelle Ebner, searched for documentation on that protection and came up empty-handed.

"We aren't affordable housing, and there was no deal with the city," Ebner says. The huge tax increase turned out to be mostly due to some unnamed former drone in the Cook County assessor's office who, apparently by accident, did the building a considerable favor. Taxes at 2418 W. Bloomingdale had declined appropriately after the 2008 housing bust, but in 2012 they dropped off a cliff. Weathered says the tax on her unit, for example, which had initially been about $2,300, fell to about $500, and stayed there for three years before shooting up to $3,000 in 2015.

Oddly, "no one complained when they went down," Weathered notes. And the county can't do a retroactive correction. It was one more gift from the government.

Ebner says the tax hike has some residents hurting, but the strongest reason for dropping the equity cap is that it didn't seem to be uniformly enforced. She bought her unit in 2010, and says she later realized she paid too much for it, while a neighbor who subsequently bought a unit half the size of hers paid about the same amount. "We thought the cap was being ignored. It seemed like the best way to deal with it was to get rid of it," Ebner says.

The market-rate sales will ostensibly still be limited to artists (very loosely defined), though they'll have to be able to afford it.

And last week a new threat to the building's identity surfaced: a proposal to sell the entire place to a buyer who'll convert it to market-rate rentals. The residents behind the proposal say it'll carry if 75 percent of the owners agree.

Batya Hernandez, who moved into the building in 2003 and whose now-deceased husband, poet David Hernandez, was a vital part of its artistic heft, says she voted against dropping the equity cap.

"I don't want to be forced from my home," Hernandez says. "I like living here, even if I have to work two jobs to stay."  v

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