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Hit the Trail? Neighbors Aim to Stay Near 'The 606'

Delia Ramirez, who grew up in the shadow of The 606 and now owns a two-flat near the popular walking/cycling trail, loves the rail-to-trail project. But she's concerned about how rising property values will affect her neighborhood's low-income residents.

Gordon Walek


Delia Ramirez strongly supported conversion of the old railroad spur that ran across her densely populated North Side neighborhood into a beautifully landscaped elevated trail for biking and hiking.  

She still does.

Only now that the Bloomingdale Trail (aka: The 606) is finished; now that young professionals are flocking to it with their baby strollers and bikes; and now that developers are snapping up the corridor’s solid two- and four-flats for conversion into luxury apartments, Ramirez and many of her neighbors are supporting something else.

They want property tax relief . . . indeed, any kind of relief from soaring tax assessments and coming rent increases.

“The way ‘For Sale’ signs are going up, a year from now I’ll be a stranger in my own neighborhood,” said Ramirez, who grew up a block south of the old rail embankment that separates the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Recently she and her husband, Curtis, took over the two-flat next door to her parents’ place … just in time for Cook County’s triennial tax reassessment.

Reflecting recent sales in the area, her home’s value was judged to have jumped over 10 percent, which she predicts will cause a $600 tax increase. The worst of it, she said, will be having to raise the rent on her tenant, a family of limited income that had been paying just $800 monthly for their two-bedroom unit.

“Three years ago, we had foreclosed buildings selling for $80,000,” said Ramirez. “Now developers are paying $185,000 for those buildings, even ones that need gut rehab.”


Residential real estate developers had been constructing new buildings, and rehabbing old ones, on the eastern edge of The 606 long before the trail was built. But now luxury homes are going up in formerly working class neighboroods along the trail's western border.

Gordon Walek


A broader issue

It’s a dramatic situation, the galloping gentrification along The 606, though not one unfamiliar to those active in the field of community development. Too often activists and organizers struggle to upgrade their business districts, their parks, their schools … only to see hard-won victories enjoyed more by newcomers than the long-time residents who worked for the changes. This happens because long-time renters get priced out of the neighborhood and owners can’t afford the property tax increases that come with improvements.

It shouldn’t surprise, then, two of LISC’s partner community organizations that flank the 2.7 mile 606 trail – the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation (BRC) – both supported construction of the $95 million public/private project and even included it in their 2005 quality-of-life plans. Yet those same plans also decried the impact gentrification was having on community life, especially on schools, as more and more families are forced to move west in search of affordable rents.

So it shouldn’t surprise, either, that both groups and their allies are mobilizing now to prevent displacement of their largely working-class membership.

“There’s been a tremendous turnaround in interest among the young and affluent for living in the city,” said John McDermott, director of housing and land use at LSNA. “But it’s a shame if gentrification has to be a necessary by-product.”

Short plus long

A two-pronged strategy is being evolved, he said, among LSNA, BRC and allied groups such as Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), Spanish Coalition for Housing, Grassroots Collaborative, and the Center for Changing Lives.


The 2.7-mile 606 runs from Marshfield on the east to Ridgeway on the west.


Their first move, in response to fast-approaching county tax appeal deadlines, was to publicize and help manage a series of tax assessment workshops. More than 300 families, many from the 606 corridor, were helped this past summer to analyze and, in most cases, formally appeal their notices of reassessment. Spanish Coalition is tracking outcomes.

Longer term, said McDermott, the groups are researching the possibility of making The 606 corridor a special assessment district in which home values are reduced or deferred for owners of limited means.

There is precedent elsewhere. The New York Times last year reported on a variety of efforts “planned or underway in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh and other cities centered on reducing or freezing property taxes for (low income) homeowners.” This “in an effort to promote neighborhood stability, preserve character and provide a dividend of sorts to those who have stayed through years of high crime, population loss and declining property values…”

Researchers also can look closer to home. Most Cook County homeowners already are eligible for a Homeowner’s Exemption that can save them as much as $2,000 a-year. Then again they have to know about it and apply. Likewise, senior citizens can qualify for a Homestead Exemption worth another $350; or even a lifetime assessment freeze if their income falls below a set threshold.

Another remedy is suggested by the Pilsen neighborhood on the Near Southwest Side, where in 2006 some 4,400 homes that pre-date the Great Fire of 1871 were drawn into a historic district. Substantial home improvements there now go untaxed for eight years before rising to market value over the following four.

The other long-term strategy, one long pursued by LSNA and BRC, is to lock in subsidized housing so residents can stand fast against, if not stem, the tide of gentrification. That’s why, for instance, LSNA has advocated to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to preserve more subsidized units at the low-rise Lathrop Homes complex along the North Branch of the Chicago River. And it’s why Bickerdike has developed and now manages over 1,000 affordable apartments in the West Town, Humboldt Park and West Humboldt neighborhoods.


Many of the new and rehabbed buildings lining The 606 have amenities, such as balconies and porches, that allow residents to view the trail, rather than barriers to hide it - a reflection of the project's popularity.

Gordon Walek


Bad time for a break

But make no mistake, solving the displacement issue along The 606 – or anywhere a desirable public improvement triggers market forces – will not be easy. Especially not in present day Chicago, a city desperate for tax revenue.

Not when a prime strategy to raise that revenue is to keep attracting corporations looking to hire digital-savvy and city-loving Millennials.

More immediately, local governments overwhelmed by pension obligations are being forced – right away – to jack property taxes. Next year’s proposed city budget calls for a $588 million property tax hike, or an estimated $543 more on a typical residential property with a market value of $250,000. And, that’s just the city’s portion of the composite bill.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called on the state legislation to enable the city to double the Homeowner’s Exemption on property worth less than $250,000. But with Springfield seemingly deadlocked with partisan politics, that looks doubtful.

None of which is discouraging LISC Chicago from continuing to foster public-private improvements such as The 606. Early in the trail’s conceptualization – well before city and federal funds were allocated – a small LISC loan helped the Trust for Public Land lock up real estate for what would become the trail’s wayside access parks.


Delia Ramirez in front of her parents' house near the western end of The 606. The neighborhood's modest two-flats and single-family homes are giving way to luxury houses and apartments.

Gordon Walek


“We need policies and practices that foster revitalization, but do so in a way that doesn’t cause or force current residents from their communities,” said Chris Brown, LISC Chicago’s director of education and engagement. “This is an issue for Chicago and many other cities around the country and is particularly important in communities such as Logan Square.”

Up along The 606, meanwhile, long-time residents like Delia Ramirez are watching their bank balances with an eye toward next year’s property tax bill.

“It’s great if you want to sell,” said Ramirez about her fast-appreciating two-flat and that of her parents next door. “But what if you want to stay?”

More information:

John McDermott, LSNA: jmcdermott@lsna.net

Chris Brown, LISC Chicago: cbrown@lisc.org

The 606 Website: http://www.the606.org/

 

Posted in Housing, Placemaking, Humboldt Park, Logan Square

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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