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The chants and slogans from the crowd of what appeared to be more than 100 white protesters who gathered outside Branch Community Church in northwest-side Jefferson Park February 9 to oppose a proposed affordable housing development felt eerily reminiscent of the 1960s.
"No Section 8!" they shouted. "No Section 8!"
"Cabrini started as vet housing too," read one sign—a reference to the now mostly demolished Cabrini-Green public housing development.
The more than 200 45th Ward residents inside the semipublic meeting were no less vitriolic, as alderman John Arena and representatives from Full Circle Communities, the project's nonprofit developer, attempted to explain the vision for the seven-story, 100-unit building, which would house families, veterans, and people with disabilities.
But opponents weren't having it.
"You are waving veterans in our faces and this has nothing to do with veterans," one woman shouted to Arena and the developers.
Although some attendees expressed concerns over the size and scale of the development, many protesters' remarks fell just shy of "We don't want poor, black families moving into our neighborhood."
One home owner said she was worried tenant screening wouldn't prevent future residents "from bringing in every miscreant cousin, nephew, brother, son." Another said she's worked with Section 8 voucher holders before. "The behavior never changes," she said, "and it's the majority of the participants in these programs." A female police officer stood up to say that she had moved to Jefferson Park "to keep my children safe."
Opposition to real estate developments perceived as a conduit for African-American families, especially poor ones, to move into white neighborhoods isn't new in Chicago. In 1966 white residents of south-side Marquette Park greeted housing integrationists led by Martin Luther King Jr. by hurling bricks and brandishing signs that read "Keep white neighborhoods white." Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Chicago Housing Authority's attempts to create scattered-site public housing units in white neighborhoods were also met with rancorous, racist opposition cloaked in concerns about "property values" and "crime." And throughout the country, opposition to low-income housing construction has long been framed in terms of concerns over density.
Nor is this the first time one of Full Circle's developments has been met with vehement neighborhood opposition by northwest-side residents who seem to conceive of affordable housing as something meant for people unlike themselves. Though Full Circle has successfully created smaller affordable housing developments in Avondale and Logan Square, last year the company was forced to halt a new development in Portage Park after encountering similar opposition.
Tuesday's picketers followed these instructions, also brandishing signs that read "Don't crowd us in," and arguing that bringing more people to the neighborhood is sure to increase crime. Some opponents didn't take kindly to Arena's chastising, and came to the picket with signs reading simply "Lock him up." Others accused him of profiteering—a charge Arena calmly denies, pointing out that if he had any financial interests in the development he would have had to disclose them to the city's Board of Ethics.
Determined not to let this rhetorical pivot slip by unnoticed, Chicago Housing Initiative members distributed printouts of Facebook conversations between various members of the opposition in which they used racially charged language to decry the proposed development, saying Jefferson Park would become "Englwood (sic) North" and that the development "will bring nothing but bad news and more criminals."
Ben Goldsmith, a CHI organizer and Jefferson Park resident, says that Arena's other transit-oriented development proposals in the neighborhood didn't galvanize nearly as much opposition, despite being potentially much taller than the Full Circle building.
"The way that the opposition [to the new development] was set up was a lot of race-baiting, ableism, and classism," he says. "They built a base of opposition based on prejudice and then tried to change the headline once the base was mobilized."
Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Bob Bank, who at the first protest brandished a sign that read "Jeff Park is not Rogers Park," denied any strategic shift in tone at Tuesday's picket. As the crowd around him chanted "Everybody's welcome / Four stories or less!" Bank argued that Jefferson Park residents are primarily concerned with protecting the semi-suburban feel of their neighborhood.
"John Arena has twisted the truth and tried to paint everybody as a racist and a bigot because that makes him look good and us look bad, and that's not true at all," Bank said. "We are consistent, year after year: We don't want tall buildings with high density."
Full Circle will need many more months to finalize financing for the development, and Arena still needs City Council approval to upzone the lot. But he says he plans to seek it, despite the backlash. Arena believes beefing up density near the el will ultimately be beneficial for the neighborhood, by helping it attract new businesses to the empty storefronts dotting Milwaukee Avenue.
"In no way do I feel intimidated that this project is not right for Jefferson Park," Arena says. "I'm interested in honoring the mixed community that I have—the community that has mixed incomes, mixed demographics, mixed nationalities."
The vocal opposition, he argues, isn't representative of the whole community.