Issues of neighborhood development are by their very nature sensitive and highly charged. It is therefore important that community leaders and the media do their best to debate those issues on the basis of facts, free from demagoguery and sloganeering.
Unfortunately, Neal Pollack, who usually tries to be fair, failed to do that in his recent account of the debate surrounding the proposed demolition of the Virginian, an apartment building north of Howard Street ("Home Wrecker," February 6). Mr. Pollack presented the story from the viewpoint of a small group of activists who make it a practice to oppose any proposal to improve my neighborhood. In so doing, he left out scores of relevant facts that would place the issue in context and provide the reader with a more balanced analysis.
Mr. Pollack's entire article appears to be premised on two erroneous assumptions: (1) that the Virginian somehow could be saved as affordable housing, and (2) that the Virginian residents will be unable to locate other affordable housing in the neighborhood. Neither assumption is supported by the facts.
As the article indicated, the proposed acquisition and demolition of the Virginian is part of a larger plan to create a campus park around Gale School consisting of a two-and-one-half-acre park and a 20,000-square-foot field house. The plan was the subject of two community-wide meetings attended by over 200 residents and numerous smaller meetings with community organizations and area residents. It enjoys the support of the local school council and a vast majority of area residents, most of whom are low income, and is a fulfillment of a long-held neighborhood dream for a community youth center in the Howard Street area.
It also provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remove from the community a very dangerous, drug- and gang-infested apartment building that is located literally 12 feet from the new Gale School annex and directly across the street from the main school building. I certainly understand and am very sensitive to the fear and concern experienced by Virginian resident Arlene Mejorado and other tenants who will have to move. Losing one's home--even one in such dismal condition as the Virginian--is not easy. That is why last December I personally visited each of the families in their homes and explained to them their rights under the Board of Education's relocation assistance plan, and why I have repeatedly and publicly stated my commitment to insuring that the Virginian residents remain in the neighborhood if they so desire.
Unfortunately, simple economics precludes any effort to save and rehabilitate the Virginian as affordable housing for the current residents. If the Virginian is not the worst building north of Howard, it certainly is among the worst. The building is replete with serious building code violations. Despite the best efforts of neighborhood activists and my office, the owner was unwilling or financially unable to make the extensive repairs necessary to bring the building up to code and eventually lost the building to foreclosure. It was scheduled to go to bank auction when the Board of Education agreed to purchase it.
The building is in such bad condition that any market-rate developer who acquired it would have to increase rents dramatically to cover the extensive rehabilitation costs. This is evidenced by the fact that no market-rate developer ever purchased the property in the five years it was listed for sale. Nor has any affordable housing developer ever expressed an interest in purchasing the property even at an auction price. The subsidy required to rehabilitate the building and keep the rents affordable is just too great.
So what would be the fate of the Virginian and its residents if the Board of Education failed to acquire it? Given the history, the building likely would be purchased at a bank auction by either (1) a slumlord who would continue to run the building into the ground until it was no longer habitable, or (2) a market-rate developer who would have to raise the rents significantly to pay for the rehabilitation. In either case, the Virginian tenants would still be displaced and without the monetary and relocation assistance that the Board of Education and my office are providing.
Mr. Pollack's story also implies that the building residents will be unable to locate other affordable apartment units in the immediate neighborhood. That too is false. Last year, I worked closely with the Board of Education to relocate eight tenant families who were displaced when the Board of Education demolished some apartment buildings to make way for the Gale School addition. All eight families were given an opportunity to remain in the neighborhood. Six of the eight families opted to do so, and two of the six used the relocation assistance provided by the board to purchase condominiums in the area.
I am confident we can replicate that success with the Virginian residents. Contrary to the implication in Mr. Pollack's article, there is substantial affordable housing north of Howard. Nearly one half (47 percent) of the 1,750 rental units north of Howard are in subsidized buildings with rent restrictions, and most of those buildings have vacancy rates of between 10 and 25 percent.
The rent in those buildings falls far below $700 a month, which Mr. Pollack claims is the price for a two-bedroom apartment north of Howard. Two-bedroom subsidized units rent for between $490 a month and $600 a month, with most at about $550 a month. A one-bedroom apartment in a decent building rents for as little as $425 a month, which is only modestly above the $385 a month that Ms. Mejorado reports she is paying for her substandard one-bedroom apartment. Thus, more than enough affordable units exist north of Howard to accommodate all the Virginian residents who wish to remain in the neighborhood.
In my seven years as alderman, I have worked successfully with community organizations and responsible developers to preserve hundreds of units of affordable housing in Rogers Park. Unfortunately, not every building can be saved. And all too often those buildings which cannot be saved remain in our neighborhood as breeding grounds for crime and virtual prisons for those responsible tenants who cannot afford to escape.
That we are able to remove such a blighted building from our neighborhood and give the residents of that building an opportunity for a better life is a cause for celebration, not a reason for obstruction and fear mongering. Your readers, and my community, deserve a more balanced treatment of this sensitive issue.