The foyer of @properties’ Fulton Street office is canopied by an expansive, lush tree, reaching its branches over a bustle of young, pointy-shoed realtors who compliment each other on looking “very Lincoln Park” today. The tree grows up and out, bursting at the seams of its artificial confinements. Perhaps @’s choice of flora is a visual metaphor to reinforce for the visitor the same message a small sign above the receptionist’s desk declares: “@properties: everywhere.”
That seems to be exactly where the company is going: @properties is Chicago’s fastest growing real estate company, with award after award falling into their lap. Their reach extends to places you wouldn’t expect to see luxury condos—@properties signs, bedecked with smiling interracial groups of young couples thrilled about their “hottest new lakefront community,” can be seen at places like 24th and Western, 26th and State, 25th and Dearborn, 69th and Dorchester, 52nd and Calumet. They represent old and new buildings, affordable to high-end luxury, from the Gold Coast to South Shore. Since its founding in 2000 by CEOs Thaddeus Wong and Michael Golden, over 1.5 billion dollars in sales have flowed through @properties’ coffers. That looming tower of cash is just one stack in the torrent of money changing the face of Chicago neighborhoods. New condo construction and “conversions” (rental buildings bought out and converted to condos) boomed in 2005 and 2006 with a slight dip in recent months. Downtown condo conversions leapt from around 700 in 2004 to 3,965 in 2005, according to Appraisal Research Counselors. It’s part of a reversal of the flow of money out of the city and into the suburbs. Urban living has once again become desirable for the city’s monied classes, and they must find someplace to go.
The “everywhere” answer that @properties poses to that question is the problematic part, according to some. If there are condos costing hundreds of thousands of dollars everywhere, then where will people who can’t afford them go? Count the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) among the ranks of dissenters. The MTO was formed in 1981 with the goal of “lifting people up,” says director John Bartlett, from a bustling Wicker Park office full of people preparing for a protest on Daley Plaza the following day. Specifically, this involves protecting tenants’ rights, especially low-income tenants, educating them and acting as an advocate in relations with the government and private developers. Thousands of people call their tenants rights hotline every year, and in 1986 they had a major role in getting Chicago’s Tenants’ Bill (now Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance) passed into law. Most recently, they won a victory in getting a bill passed that requires landlords to give 120 days of notice to tenants when their building has been sold.
The MTO stands opposite developers and realtors like @properties philosophically on a number of issues. On whether there is really a problem: “I consider conversions worse because they’re taking rents that were affordable off the market and turning them into condos, which, for the most part, are not affordable for the people who lived there. So where do they go? They leave the community and, sometimes, out of the city. That’s a huge problem,” says Bartlett. @properties’ Thaddeus Wong has a different take: “We’re in a naturally occurring cycle that happens everywhere, and people get shifted around.” Bartlett offers a possible solution: “We need to increase subsidies, and secondly we need to offer incentives to landlords to maintain affordability. If you’re going to keep it affordable rental housing, we’ll keep your water bill lower and keep your taxes lower. We should raise taxes on new condos. We need to create laws that make it harder for a landowner to convert a rental unit into a condo.” Bartlett cited the fact that it’s cheaper and easier for developers to convert than to build new because they can get around some requirements. Wong was ambivalent on the question of a proper solution. When asked if he thought it was possible for mixed-income communities to be successful, he said “Absolutely.” Later on, though, he pointed out, “If you buy a house and it’s $500,000, and across the street they build a high-rise of subsidized apartments, your house may be worth $250,000 soon enough. Then you have homeowners asking: is this fair?”
As tempting as it may be to see it as such, developers are not one hundred-percent evil and greedy. As Bartlett contends, “It’s not like they have a commitment to that neighborhood; they just have a commitment to developing real estate so they can make as much money as possible. It’s greed is what’s pushing it.” Developers care about someone’s interests and will defend their constituency ardently–it just happens to be a different constituency than the one that MTO defends. Wong speaks passionately about the needs of homeowners, discussing how buyers on the South Side have been “ripped off” for years because the prices have been so low they haven’t been able to command good services or high-quality materials. “@ wants to bring professionalism back and improve the quality of service in South Side neighborhoods, and not just Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Bronzeville, either,” says Wong. The concerns that Bartlett and Wong voice echo each other: everyone wants a nice place to live, doesn’t want to be ripped off, and wants a quality home that is worth their money. Homeowners want their investment to mature; renters want an affordable place to live.
Despite Wong saying that we are simply part of a “growth cycle” that involves shifting people around, there is clearly some sort of problem with unfettered condo expansion. Even Mayor Daley sees it and called a condominium task force to discuss how to proceed. That was over a year ago, and the force has yet to meet, nor does it include a representative for renters (though it does include representatives from Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, the Chicago Rehab Network and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest). The task force is set to meet on November 8, and the problems they have to discuss surrounding gentrification, revitalization, urban renewal, or whatever you want to call it are intractable and numerous. Here’s a short list: subsidies to developers to encourage affordable rental housing construction are posed as a solution, but the funds needed for that must come from taxes and you aren’t going to get many taxes from a community that’s almost entirely poor. There is a lack of amenities in poor neighborhoods, but businesses don’t want to move to an area without buying power (though recent scholarship questions the assertion that the poor have as little buying power as is thought. It seems that businesses are missing a great opportunity.) It’s nigh impossible to find a solution to please the current community, or a reliable community voice, because the “community” is far from homogeneous. A neighborhood like North Kenwood-Oakland, which is ninety-eight-percent black, includes homeowners who have been there from generations and who want to see their property appreciate but fear taxes getting out of control, working-class renters who worry about a dearth of rental property, public housing residents who resist being shifted around by the government, and low-income renters in subsidized housing who are upset that their building is being sold or that landlords refuse to maintain their apartment. All these parties have particular and sometimes competing interests, and according to Mary Pattillo, sociologist and author of “Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City,” homeowners often dominate neighborhood organizations. This begs the question: will there ever be a community “voice” that is respected as legitimate, and can organizations ever accurately claim to represent the community?
Naturally, it follows that no side can really agree upon an urban development success story, a model neighborhood that has undertaken a project of injecting money and new buying power into the neighborhood, including all voices along the way and reaching a solution that lets most people stay and makes the new people happy. Therefore, there is no model to compare to during the neighborhood-building process, no formula to follow. And perhaps that is exactly the point: in Chicago, the City of Neighborhoods, a development formula would produce a bunch of interchangeable, identical communities, lacking the strong character that evokes a sense of pride in its residents. Any solution must be fundamentally community-based. And the question isn’t whether the MTO or @properties and their counterparts are “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply interest groups representing different constituencies and pushing in sometimes opposite directions, trying to convince Progress to move forward at a rate at which they’re comfortable. Both are natural and both are necessary, and Chicago will only lift itself up through their conversation, negotiation, and, yes, politics. So let’s talk.