WEST LOOP — When Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. said the West Loop was starting to become "a bigot neighborhood," some neighbors who recently rallied against new rental developments took the message personally.
Calling the alderman's comments "out of line," attorney Sam Tenenbaum, a 15-year resident at 850 W. Adams St., who bought into the area long before it topped "hottest neighborhood" lists, said he resents being called a bigot.
Tenenbaum was among a group of neighbors who opposed a planned apartment building at 111 S. Peoria St., ultimately forcing Burnett to shut the project down.
"I think this was the alderman's Donald Trump moment," Tenenbaum said. The comment "is frankly untrue and very unfair to people that are concerned citizens."
After fielding complaints about new rental developments in the West Loop for months, Burnett (27th) said Tuesday night that the West Loop was starting to become "a bigot neighborhood."
"When I left [an earlier] meeting, I felt that [some residents] were very discriminatory against [renters]. I felt bad that there was people sitting in that room that rent. You don't actually recognize that you are talking about people in the meetings. I thought it was wrong, I thought it was bad, and I tell you... it turned me off," Burnett said at a meeting to consider a proposed 80-unit rental development at 922 W. Lake St.
But Tenenbaum, a leader in the West Loop who has considered Burnett a friend for many years, said it was the alderman who was "wrong." The West Loop has been "very welcoming" to thousands of apartments that have popped up in the neighborhood over the last few years, he said, "and there's many more to come."
In June, hundreds of residents came out against LG Development's planned 215 unit project at 111 S. Peoria St., citing issues with the building's height, parking plan and an influx of renters it would bring to the area.
Stephanie Lulay says Burnett isn't backing down from his comments:
Hundreds of residents opposed LG Development's plan to build a 13-story rental tower at 111 S. Peoria St. in the West Loop [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
In May, a group of neighbors opposed Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group's 120-apartment plan at the former Carmichael's Steakhouse site in Ald. Danny Solis' 25th Ward.
But opposition to two projects doesn't mean West Loop residents are opposed to all rental developments, Tenenbaum said.
"What we do favor is supporting the families that make the West Loop a desirable area," he said. "What's wrong with families and what's wrong with homes? Who serves on the parks councils? The PTAs? The local school boards, CAPS committees? On community boards? For the most part, its people who put down roots."
Shayne Wulbert, a 13-year resident who lives in a condo at Carmichael's Place, said the alderman's comments were "a slap in the face." Wulbert, a Realtor with @properties, also rents out another property she owns in the West Loop.
As a resident and Realtor, Wulbert said there's a tremendous demand for home ownership in the West Loop that isn't being met. As developers build apartment buildings lot line to lot line in the area, potential sites for homeowners are disappearing, she said.
In April, real estate agents specializing in the West Loop market said homeowners looking to buy in the neighborhood are having an increasingly tough time landing properties, and the limited inventory is leading to multiple above-asking-price offers when most homes hit the market.
"There are already thousands of rentals being built, and there is a huge demand for ownership in the area. [Apartment ] projects are taking up all the land that is available to create space for owners and families who want to expand and stay in the neighborhood," Wulbert wrote on Facebook.
"The community is upset not because of who renters are, but because of the sheer numbers of units that are coming onto the market when the demand is not actually for rentals but for condos."
On Wednesday, Burnett said developers wouldn't be building rentals if the move didn't make sense financially. West Loop developers seeking to build apartment buildings have previously said that it difficult to finance a large condo building project.
"'Oversaturation.' I've heard this before. They said this when the condos were being built," said Burnett, who has served as alderman for 20 years. "I heard, 'Too many condos hurt others in the area.' Now look at it. They can't keep a condo on the market now," Burnett said. "You've got to let the market do its thing."
Wulbert called the alderman's "bigot" argument "a diversion."
"I do believe it's a diversion from the truth of the matter," she said. "The fact remains there are too many rentals going up in the neighborhood and I've yet to see anybody give evidence that there's greater demand for rentals than home ownership."
Burnett: 'Unconscious discrimination'
On Wednesday, the alderman said that he fielded many calls of support from city and religious leaders after he said that he was feeling "so much discrimination, tension" in the West Loop.
"People are calling me to march with them," he said. "I'm not afraid of standing up against what's wrong."
Despite the controversy that followed his comments, Burnett said the message sparked meaningful dialogue about diversity and affordable housing issues in the West Loop.
"I wouldn't say it if I wasn't ready to deal with the conversation," Burnett said. "When you're straight with people, they may not like what you have to say, but they will respect you for it."
Only wanting renters or only supporting home ownership opportunities is a form of "unconscious discrimination," he said.
"They're not aware that what the are saying offends people," he said. "This is a fair area and it's open to everybody."
At the end of the day, renters and homeowners are all concerned about the same things — "their kids, their home and their livelihood," Burnett said.
According to a February analysis of rentals in Chicago, the median one-bedroom apartment on the Near West Side rents for $1,960 per month, nearly $300 higher than the city's median average.
What does 'affordable housing' mean?
In a response to the "tension" in the neighborhood, Burnett will now require all developers who want to build in the West Loop neighborhood in the 27th Ward to dedicate 10 percent of units in their developments for affordable housing.
Under the city's current Affordable Requirements Ordinance rules, developers are required to put affordable housing in all new developments of 10 or more units that seek zoning changes from the city or use city land or subsidies. Developers can avoid that requirement by opting to make a payment to the city instead.
Developers almost always make the "in lieu" payment in the West Loop, Burnett said.
City ordinance calls for rental units to be affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the median income in the area. In Chicago, that's about $32,000 for a single person and $45,600 for a family of four, according to city statistics.
According to the city's 2015 rent table, the maximum an "affordable" one-bedroom apartment could rent for is $855. The maximum a three-bedroom "affordable" unit could rent for is $1,026.
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