Last spring, Clare Johnson and her boyfriend went bike riding on the North Side in search of a neighborhood that wasn’t undergoing gentrification. Johnson, at the time a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was looking for someplace she could live without contributing to the controversial process whereby working-class, often physically dilapidated neighborhoods are redeveloped and then shoot up in property value. Although gentrification can bring benefits to a neighborhood, from better city services to more extensive retail options, it often has the effect of displacing the current residents, whose families may have lived in that area for generations. Johnson’s four-hour bike ride yielded disappointing results. “Some places are a little worse, some places are a little better,” she says, but nowhere is exempt. “Every neighborhood is in some process of gentrification,” agrees Rebecca Shi, Johnson’s friend and fellow UofC fourth-year.
When Johnson realized she couldn’t escape gentrification, she decided instead to make a positive impact, or at least avoid a negative one. Johnson currently heads the Responsible Housing Guide project for the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), a student club at the UofC. The project was conceived by Jenny Akchin, a former student involved with SSN. While selling anti-gentrification T-shirts at an SSN event last year, Akchin heard students express frustration about their roles as unintentional gentrifiers. Together with Johnson and other students, she decided to put together a guide to help such students move off campus without disturbing the communities they moved into. Since then, the project’s target audience has expanded to include graduate students and more. “When the University is trying to bring professors to Chicago and offering them housing options, [it could] give them a copy,” offers Daniela Petuchowski, a fourth-year student involved in the project.
Johnson expects the guide to come out the first week of May in a magazine-like format. Its thirty or so pages will include tips on subjects from choosing a landlord to buying local and avoiding “big box” retail. On the former subject, for example, the guide will urge readers to rent from a local rather than an absentee landlord and to consult an online database that lists landlords across the city who have committed crimes from illegal evictions to zoning violations. The guide will also urge potential gentrifiers to pay attention to the average rent in an area and try to stay within that range. This makes it less likely that landlords will dump established residents for better-paying students and graduates, and can help prevent an upwards re-evaluation of real estate value, which can cause the whole area’s property taxes to increase.
While interning last summer for Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), Johnson interviewed community organizers and human rights activists and asked them for advice for the Responsible Housing Guide project. “What I kept hearing was, ‘Talk to your neighbors. Be part of the community,’” says Johnson. “That was the most common reaction to the guide that we got.” This focus on community involvement helped Johnson realize that “it’s less about where you live than how you live there.” She abandoned any idea of telling people which neighborhoods to live in and which neighborhoods to avoid. “It was absurd to think that students wouldn’t move to Pilsen. It’s just not realistic to expect people to choose what neighborhoods to move to based on this,” she reflects. And besides, it might not even be desirable to avoid neighborhoods struggling with the effects of gentrification. “There’s not a place you can move to that will keep you out of the fray,” says Johnson. “But maybe it’s better to move someplace where there’s a struggle, so you can make a difference.”
Despite the confrontational language, Johnson’s advice for potential gentrifiers is simple and far from radical. “What you can do [is] support the retention of the community that existed before you and respect it,” she says. “We don’t want everyone to be an activist–that’s absurd.” Instead, the Responsible Housing Guide project asks students, professors and others to simply be aware of the effects of their actions and try to minimize their harmful impact on their new homes and communities.