Restraining Zeus: How a local ballot initiative is attempting to control Mayor Daley’s Olympian actions

While everyone has analyzed and reanalyzed the presidential campaign this year, it’s easy to forget that Chicago’s many ballots contain a long list of judges to appoint or retain, a proposed constitutional convention, and individual ballot initiatives about various local issues. One local issue concerns Chicago’s prospective hosting of the 2016 Olympics. Voters in certain precincts in Wards 2, 3, 4 and 20 can encourage Mayor Daley and the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee to use part of any potential Olympic windfall to benefit Bronzeville residents. The ballot initiative asks that at least 26% of the city’s vacant lots in Bronzeville be used for affordable housing for moderate-income residents. Generally, “affordable” means residents are spending no more than 30% of their gross (before taxes) income on housing. Moderate-income residents earn between 80% and 120% of Chicago’s Median Income, targeting the middle class.

The initiative is meant to partially address a major fear many residents have about the prospect of Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics. Despite the economic and infrastructural benefits Chicago might experience, many people worry that there could be negative impacts on things like housing and transportation for moderate- and low-income residents of South Side neighborhoods. Because the Olympic Stadium would be a located in Washington Park, neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Bronzeville would be especially affected by the 2016 Games. Although the proposed stadium would be a temporary fixture, even that short term structure could have long-term impact. Groups like the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless believe that low-income and vulnerable groups may be rolled over in the Olympic fever that often takes over the chosen city.

While no one expects the degree of widespread evictions witnessed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chicago residents have valid fears that they may be priced out of their neighborhoods. Other cities have faced this problem of displacement as the Olympics have become a larger and larger event. In efforts to spread the benefits of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Vancouver recently approved the Olympic Legacy Affordable Housing project to create movable modular housing units. The 320 temporary housing units will form part of the Olympic Village and later be moved to other communities to become permanent affordable housing. Hyde Park’s Coalition for Equitable Community Development advocates a similar measure to minimize the displacement of area residents by making a third of the Olympic Village units into affordable housing after the “two-week party” is over.

The opportunities and risks that the Olympics may bring to Chicago were discussed by Hyde Park residents at a recent forum convened by the Coalition for Equitable Community Development at Augustana Lutheran Church. The forum took place on October 18th, and was cosponsored by several local organizations, including Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. Residents spoke about their concerns to speakers, including the community liaison for Chicago 2016 and two aldermen. With issues ranging from parking to gentrification, area residents expressed hopes that a Chicago Olympics could improve the city, and fears that they might not benefit from those improvements.

There are always huge structural changes when a city hosts the Olympics. There may be urban revitalization, as areas of the city are completely transformed by massive public works projects. The boom in tourism and advertising infuses local businesses and large corporations with huge amounts of money. When all these changes have taken place, a city can find itself transformed. Often the biggest changes are seen in areas considered “underutilized,” throwing the lives of already disadvantaged people into further chaos. How can we make sure that these people are not trampled in the ensuing Olympic madness? Is a non-binding resolution to recommend some provisions for middle income housing anywhere near enough?

Cities are always changing. Whether it is “white flight” or gentrification, a new influx of immigrants or technological upheaval, American cities have witnessed waves of change that each left their mark. If Chicago receives the mixed blessing of the 2016 Olympics, no one can deny that there will be major changes, in both the economic and physical structure of the city. The government and Mayor Daley must be careful to ensure that all benefit. A large public works project like hosting the Games is no experiment in the free market. The city is responsible for the changes it enacts, and it must recognize its obligations to assist all people hurt by its Olympian efforts.