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'Renter' Becomes a Bad Word as City's Class War Rages in West Loop

 Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. says he hopes reassigning police
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. says he hopes reassigning police "desk jockeys" will be enough to address the city's gun-violence issues.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

WEST LOOP — The meatpacking district and skid row slum saved by Oprah has officially become ground zero in Chicago’s class war.

It happened the moment Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) expressed his real fear that home-owning neighbors might turn the booming tech center and foodie paradise into a “bigot neighborhood.”

Say what you want about Burnett’s choice of words, the guy hit the nail on the head. And it’s about time.

We live in a city starkly divided by rich and poor.

That’s a fact that continually gets overshadowed by Chicago’s long history of racial segregation and all the tension, turmoil and hate that comes with it.

The raging debate over whether high-rise apartments will flood the West Loop with undesirables — people who rent rather than buy real estate — stirs up some bad memories.

Burnett said some comments made at a meeting to discuss a proposed upscale rental tower development with fancy amenities and a rooftop pool particularly got under his skin. Some people “were very discriminatory against [renters]. I felt bad that there was people sitting in that room that rent. You don’t actually realize that you are talking about people in the meetings,” he said.

“I thought it was wrong, I thought it was bad, and I tell you ... it turned me off.”

He’s talking about some neighbors who expressed a concern about a "stampede" of rental buildings popping up in the neighborhood.

"Rental buildings tend to attract people who come and go quite quickly. The turnover is rapid. They don't help to stabilize the neighborhood," one resident told my colleague Stephanie Lulay at the meeting Tuesday night.

"They don't contribute in the long term to the neighborhood. Owners contribute in the long term to the neighborhood."

It seems that “renter” is the new N-word in Chicago’s class war — code used by not-in-my-backyard homeowners to refer to those people in the same way real estate redlining steered African Americans away from certain neighborhoods decades ago.

It kind of makes a guy wonder if fear of a “stampede” of unwanted renters suggests that “rich flight" — a not too distant relative of “white flight" — might come next.

Burnett says he’ll fight against what he considers unjust discrimination against renters by homeowners who don’t want things to change. He promised to require developers to include affordable housing units in developments rather than letting them use a loophole to buy themselves out of the city’s mandate.

"It's going to have to be a mixed neighborhood,” he said, referring to a mix of renters and homeowners of various incomes.

“Don't no one group own no neighborhood in the City of Chicago. This is America."

While that’s a nice thought, it’s not actually true.

The rich own the West Loop — where the average family income tops about $130,000 a year, according to Census figures — and a lot of other neighborhoods that working-class Chicagoans can’t afford to call home.

Here's a common scenario: When the work day ends, blue-collar folks working hourly gigs in Chicago’s posh ZIP codes have to take long bus rides home to the neighborhoods they can afford — and where some people probably believe they belong.

That’s what Chicago’s class war — our very own tale of two cities — is all about.

And this flare-up in the West Loop over undesirable renters illustrates how some people would like to keep it that way, despite the obvious ironies.

For one, they own homes in what once was an urban slum before Oprah brought Harpo Studios to the West Loop. A few decades ago, certain parts of the West Loop were best known as a hot spot to buy drugs and pick up prostitutes or sleep in a doorway rent-free. Nobody worried about renters back then.

It took a lot of zoning variances — the same urban planning changes that will be needed to build new high-rise rental towers — to turn former manufacturing plants and cold-storage buildings into swank lofts that attracted more construction, coffee shops and that beloved stretch of fancy places to eat on Randolph Street.

The real estate market crash hit the neighborhood hard, but the neighborhood has rebounded. Some condos are finally worth what they sold for more than a decade ago, according Zillow.com.

And things are looking up.

More than any other Chicago neighborhood, the West Loop is well on its way to becoming more like a posh New York City neighborhood with plans for boutique hotels and hip restaurants already on the drawing board.

It’s all thanks to a looming job boom led by some pretty powerful new tech-businesses that have moved into the neighborhood — Google, Twitter and LinkedIn, among them.  

"Google is bringing a lot of business, and really, a big name to the neighborhood," neighborhood booster Martha Goldstein, former executive director of the West Loop Community Organization, told me last year.

"It's the technology age, and we are becoming an information technology neighborhood."

It's a good sign that real estate developers are betting young tech-savvy employees making modest wages as they climb the corporate ladder want to live in nice apartments with rooftop pools, eat at good restaurants and have easy access to public transportation rather than buy condos when home prices are the highest they’ve been in a decade.

To say those people shouldn’t be welcome in the West Loop because they prefer to sign a lease is the kind of classist snobbery that segregates our city in a way rivaled only by racism.

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