When the University of Chicago won its bid for the Obama Presidential Library in May 2015, Sunshine Gospel Ministries Jared Hamernick knew that its construction would drastically change his community.
As a longtime South Side resident, Hamernick believes that on the whole, the community supports the University of Chicago’s efforts to place the Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side. “This is Obama’s home, this is where he started his career,” he said. “Where else are you going to put a presidential library? It has to be on the South Side.”
But despite the general excitement he sees on the streets south of the University of Chicago’s campus, Hamernick recognizes that there is a large amount of skepticism and concern among residents. “The people who first supported President Obama feel like they’re going to be the ones being displaced by his library,” he said. “The problem is that keeping affordable housing hasn’t been handled particularly well in the past, so the community is suspect of the idea that there are going to be enough affordable units.”
According to a 2013 study by the Anderson Economic Group, the library will bring an estimated $220 million and 800,000 visitors annually to Chicago’s South Side. Hamernick’s goal is to prevent this influx from causing gentrification, a daunting feat when tourism will inevitably cause property values to skyrocket and render some residents unable to pay their mortgages.
Hamernick is the director of two Woodlawn-based community development organizations, Sunshine Gospel Ministries and Sunshine Enterprises. “Sunshine Gospel Ministries’ basic goal is to seek the renewal of our community through the principles of discipleship, mercy and justice,” he explained. The organization works to instill academic and vocational skills in local youth through a combination of tutoring, religious education, and on-the-job training. Sunshine Gospel Ministries’ economic counterpart, Sunshine Enterprises, has the goal of developing 200 small businesses along 61st Street, and was recently named Chicago’s best new startup incubator by the Chicago Reader.
Pastor Monte Rollerson of the South Side Gospel Ministries praised Sunshine Enterprises for its work in the Woodlawn area. “Since Sunshine Enterprises has landed, I’ve seen a complete transformation on 61st Street,” he said. “In the past decade, they are probably the most successful development group in Woodlawn other than the University.”
Unlike some members of his congregation, Rollerson didn’t question the University of Chicago’s handling of the bidding process for the library. Many South Siders have taken issue with the lack of polling or surveys about a prospective presidential library, but Rollerson didn’t think it would have been necessary. “I think it’s a no-brainer—if you have the opportunity as a city to get an economic engine like that, you should jump on it as soon as possible,” he said. “The University didn’t really get the residents involved, but I think that’s one of those examples where the community might give an exception and recognize that this really will be a positive force.”
A construction site has yet to be chosen—the two contenders are Washington Park and Jackson Park, both located within blocks of the University of Chicago—and the library isn’t projected to be completed until 2020. Before then, Hamernick said, there is a lot to be done to keep community members in their homes and businesses in the midst of huge economic change. “You can call this gentrification, or you can call it an investment,” said Hamernick. “If you view it through the lens of gentrification, then the library is essentially going to come in and displace everyone who has lived here for years through rising property taxes, rental rates, and unrenewed vouchers. If you think of it as an investment, then there are things that can be done to ensure that the library brings about at least in part positive change.”
Rollerson said that he sees a lot of private interests maneuvering to maximize their local real estate in preparation for when the library causes a jump in South Side property values. “Those who are in a position to do so and have resources are trying to acquire as much land as possible, probably secretly so they can get a better deal once the smoke settles,” he said. “A lot of things are happening under the table that are positioning people with a lot of resources to make some nice-sized profits once the opportunity comes.”
Though Rollerson acknowledged that he didn’t have proof, he assumed that the University of Chicago, as one of the biggest stakeholders on the project, is most likely among those organizations trying to “gobble up” land and real estate. The University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement declined to comment for this article.
The South Side is a place of massive income inequality. Whoever is trying to profit from property value increases, it’s doubtful that they are Woodlawn residents. Hamernick estimates that more than 95 percent of Woodlawners do not own their homes. “As a result, when a renter’s property value spikes, they can’t afford to remain in their home. We’re trying to figure out if we’re in a position to leverage community assets and persons to be able to put people into homeownership, because at the moment property value is relatively low.”
This is a problem when the people who stand to benefit most from the library in the long term are the current homeowners. “In America, wealth is generated over decades as a result of owning or inheriting property,” Hamernick said. “Even if you come into a situation where the property tax rises so fast you can’t keep up, you’ll at least be able to sell your property and have some sort of windfall.” In theory, if a homeowner can ride out the property tax hike, their property would continue to rise in value, benefitting them in the long term.
For this reason, Hamernick and his team have been scaling up their homeownership efforts. Thanks to a generous donation from a high-net worth individual, Sunshine Enterprises has been able to acquire and renovate its first single-family house over the last six months. “Ideally, we’d be interested in finding more individuals with an interest in philanthropic investing to enable us to give more South Side families the opportunity to own their homes before the library is constructed,” Hamernick said.
In all likelihood, however, only a few families will be able to own a home courtesy of Sunshine Enterprises. Securing affordable housing in the run-up to the Obama Presidential Library’s construction remains an important issue to many Woodlawners and other South Side residents. Illinois already struggles with the availability of affordable housing: a 2014 study by the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University found that across the state, there are only fifty-nine affordable rental units for every hundred low-income rental households, and Hamernick is concerned that the new presidential library will only exacerbate this problem. “Usually when this sort of investment comes in, the number of remaining affordable units is sustainably fewer,” he said.
The process of affordable housing units being broken up in the wake of new infrastructure actually does have its own merits. “In theory, you don’t want massive concentrated poverty,” Hamernick said. “That’s not a good model for helping families get out of their current economic situation, so in a sense you do want rent controlled or affordable housing spread out over a large geographic area where there are modest to medium income families.” A 2010 study from the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center found that the low-income families living in mixed-income housing developments benefitted from “improved housing quality, increased safety, improved property management, and improved mental health from a reduction in stress.” Most importantly, Hamernick said, low-income families will receive community support while they attempt to find work and better their current economic situation.
Sunshine Enterprises is also equipping local entrepreneurs to survive imminent changes in the community. Hamrick sees an enormous opportunity for business owners to capitalize on the influx of tourism dollars, but also sees major obstacles: “The problem is that most business owners in this area are very disorganized...If you want to benefit from a new presidential library you’re going to have to have your books in order, going to have to be legal.” This is where Sunshine Enterprises and its community business academy comes in. Entrepreneurs learn the basics of accounting, marketing, and corporate strategy in an adult learning setting and then transition to one-on-one coaching with established entrepreneurs. “We’re trying to equip business owners to make sure that they are able to capitalize on that community investment,” said Hamernick. “We want to put our business owners in a place to take advantage of that opportunity when it comes.”
Unfortunately, the library may not be the job creator that the South Side needs. Though the Barack Obama Foundation claims that the library will bring 3,280 temporary construction jobs and 1,900 permanent jobs to the South Side, Rollerson said that South Siders are skeptical about the percentage of jobs that will be made available to members of the local community. “We already know that there is a going to be a small percentage awarded to the African American community, but we have to assume that those will be low-level jobs. It’s not necessarily exciting for members of the community to know that there’ll be a huge enterprise coming in but they won’t benefit from it.”
Rollerson also expects that local companies, just like local residents, may be passed over by the library’s hiring managers. “With a project of this size, there are a number of contracts that could be doled out, both for construction and operations or vendors once the structure is place,” he said. He added that a number of local firms are vying to secure the contracts related to the library, but “unfortunately, those contracts aren’t typically awarded to minority vendors.”
Hamernick called upon the University of Chicago and the Barack Obama Foundation to play a key role in ensuring that the library will bring jobs and sustainable housing to the area. Both organizations certainly have the funds and the ability to invest in the surrounding community. If the University of Chicago turns the South Side into a tourist attraction but fails to provide for established residents, it will pay a high price in the loss of the local culture that enriches students’ experiences, as well as destroy years of painstaking progress toward building a good rapport with community members.
According to Rollerson, the University can begin by pledging to keep jobs and profits generated by the library in the community. “If an organization, including the University of Chicago, is going to benefit from the library, then they need to tell us that they’re not going to be the only ones benefitting,” said Rollerson. “They need to tell us that they plan to give back. I think that would empower the city as a whole and get everyone excited for the library’s construction.”
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