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Activists and city leaders in Uptown squared off once again over the weekend over the housing rights of the city’s less fortunate. The back and forth that resulted in several arrests by Chicago Police is just the latest chapter in a long battle to conserve affordable housing in a city that is rapidly dissolving opportunities to those unable to afford the gilded glass behemoths popping up from the South Loop to Rogers Park.

Residents of Uptown and housing advocates from across the city joined together on Saturday at Ald. James Cappleman’s 46th Ward Office at 4544 N. Broadway, occupying his office until their demands for equal opportunity housing, among others, were met. Three activists: Andy Thayer, Ryne Poelker and Marc Kaplan were arrested for trespassing in the office around 9 PM.

The actions are in response to the city’s recent removal of the neighborhood’s “Tent City’s”, enclaves of tents and haphazard dwellings constructed under Lake Shore Drive along Lawrence Ave and the shutting down of Single Room Occupancy Hotels in the area, which tend to serve those in need. The confluence of both, plus the recent announcement to use $15.8 million of Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) funds to help erect more luxury condos just blocks from the site of the Tent City. As the housing stock in Uptown has aged, it has often been those with the least resources who are without a place to sleep.

“This is something that has been brewing for literally years in Uptown,” Thayer said over the phone. “Affordable housing options have been shut down, shelters as well as SROs (Single Room Occupancy Hotels). We’ve lost over 20 SRO units on the north side over just a three year period. It’s a larger pattern of a war on the homeless and anyone who isn’t already pretty damn wealthy in Uptown or the rest of the city at large.”

In a statement, Cappelman proclaimed, “I do not support any form harassment of the homeless.”

While that statement may hold true, the reality is a decades-long effort to conserve affordable housing in Uptown, a neighborhood that has also been affected by closures of mental health facilities and shelters along with dwindling SRO options.

For Thayer, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1978, the changes have been palpable.

“What we have seen over the past few decades is the massive destruction of public housing without even one to one replacement of that destroyed housing. The problem becomes that youre not actually adding to the housing stock, you’re simply subsidizing private landlords who can’t get market rate rents, rather than actually adding to the housing stock which is what we urgently, urgently need,” he explained. “I think its added to a great deal of stress for people. Uptown has its share of shootings and so forth and I think when you have people’s basic needs, or provide for basic necessities and a bit more you’re going to have all sorts of social dysfunction.”

The fight for housing in Chicago is one that has raged in the wake of the demolition of much of the CHA-sponsored high-rises in the early 2000s that has largely been replaced by a continuing glass facade of high-end luxury developments that have crept outward from the Loop in every direction. The protests against moves to not only evict Tent City residents that had camped out under the cracking viaduct, but also the general lack of affordable housing and a recent move to use $15.8 million in TIFF funds for a luxury high-rise near the site on Lawrence Ave, took place nearly a year to the day activists last took to Uptown’s streets. That time was to defend similar rights after Chicago Police arrived to clear out a pedestrian walkway. As Single Room Occupancy hotels fall by the wayside and the surging gentrification spurred by Emanuel’s Loop continue to raise rent and prod developers into more cookie cutter glass-houses, it appears it will be the least-advantaged that will once again bear the brunt.

In a part of the story that would be ironic if it were not set in in this particular city, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) still holds a roughly $440 million surplus plus full pension funding. It seems ludicrous that in a city facing an over $250 million gap in funding for public schools, among much else, would hold back money to construct livable, realistic housing to those who call our city home without a six-figure bank account. We also have the highest property tax and sales taxes in the country, with a tariff on pop to boot.

“They [city officials] have a number of other areas they conveniently switch to high-end housing, like Cabrini-Green and certainly they have their sights set on Bronzeville,” Thayer said. “They purposely let CHA housing get run down rather than maintain it and then they say ‘oops, oh boy we feel really sorry for the poor black people staying in Cabrini-Green, lets destroy it to help them.’ It’s a concerted policy on the part of Rahm Emanuel and his aldermanic allies to boost the 1%, to boost the already wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.”

Chicago is a city built not by the gilded names of streets and buildings, but rather by the common men and women who frequent them. Too long, those who chose the names have dictated our way of life, pitted factions of us against one another and manipulated our expectations and understandings to fit a larger agenda. Currently, it appears to be the systemic migration of middle and lower-class citizens, mainly black and brown, out of the city while the mayor and his cronies turn downtown and its sprawl into a suburbanized metropolis catering only to Google and Amazon employees. Coming together to demand change the way Thayer and fellow activists did in Uptown this past week appears to be one step forward in a journey to fight back against that intention.

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