JEFFERSON PARK — A proposal for a 100-unit mixed-income housing complex in Jefferson Park has unleashed a torrent of controversy in the neighborhood and beyond, setting the stage for a combative public meeting to discuss the plan next week.
The plan whipped up fresh uproar among a broad segment of residents already opposed to Ald. John Arena's (45th) steady cultivation of large-scale housing complexes in the area, which they say will clog streets with traffic and spoil the neighborhood's small-town atmosphere.
But unlike previous proposals, the plan for 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. includes 80 apartments slated to rent below market rate, setting off alarm bells for residents worried that poorer neighbors will draw crime and drive down property values.
The plan, drawn up by developer Full Circle Communities, calls for a seven-story, L-shaped building with a library, business center, community garden and a full floor of retail shops. The apartments would be prioritized for veterans and people with disabilities, with at least 10 units built exclusively for wheelchair users.
More than half the units would be three-bedroom apartments, with 17 two-bedrooms, 22 one-bedrooms and 10 studios. Apartments would rent on a sliding scale based on income, with between 20-30 units reserved for CHA voucher-holders.
Within days of the proposal's announcement, it became the target of at least two petitions and made battlegrounds out of Facebook pages and comment sections, with some opponents even comparing it to 20th century mega-housing complexes like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. Leading the charge have been members of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, who have stood firmly against Arena's pro-density agenda as long as he's pursued it.
"Everyone I talk to is pretty upset about the idea of stuffing all this low-income housing into one building in one neighborhood," said Bob Bank, president of the neighborhood association. "I think it's just going to bring a bunch of desperate low-income families that are going to overcrowd our schools and bring crime, and bring all their problems with them."
Jefferson Park was mostly untouched by last year's citywide surge in violent crime, with the neighborhood's last shooting occurring in October 2015. But longtime residents like Steve Neidenbach, who's lived near Foster and Austin avenues since 1990, worry that allowing subsidized housing units would pose a threat to that relative peace.
"Chicago is making the national news every other night, and that's exactly what scares people," Neidenbach said. "There's a real fear out there about the criminal element."
Every applicant for an affordable unit would be screened through an in-person interview, a credit check and a criminal background screening, according to Full Circle Communities vice president Lindsey Haines.
"We'd be making sure applicants don't have felonies, drug offenses or property crimes on their records, or anything that would make them not a good neighbor," Haines said.
The building would also stand directly across Milwaukee Avenue from the Jefferson Park District police station, which Arena pointed to as a hulking deterrent to would-be criminals.
"Even in the case of this fantasy that the worst of the worst are going to come in, guess what?" Arena said. "We've got the best of the best right across the street."
What's more, part of the reason Full Circle Communities chose Jefferson Park for the project was because most of its ideal tenants already live in the neighborhood, Haines said.
Of the 80 affordable apartments, about half would be targeted to tenants making about $46,000 annually, about the income of the average Jefferson Park renter, she said.
"The rental market there is flooded, and it's driving rents up," Haines said. "So even for people who are working full-time, it can be difficult to keep up and afford rent."
Still, residents like Bank and Neidenbach are skeptical that a building with subsidized housing units would be able to attract any local families or young professionals, predicting that the vacuum would only open more space for indigent or impoverished outsiders.
"Who on Earth would want to be paying $1,900 for an apartment when someone right next to you is Section 8 and only paying $300?" Neidenbach said. "I just don't see it happening."
But the need for affordable housing on the Far Northwest Side has exploded in the last decade, according to Kevin Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Chicago Rehab Network.
"All over the city, we've seen that the majority of incomes haven't kept up with the cost of real estate," Jackson said. "Especially in places like Jefferson Park, where the population has stayed pretty stable while others declined, the demand for housing is getting pretty high."
The network's research on Jefferson Park showed that nearly 42 percent of the neighborhood's renters spent more than a third of their income on rent in 2010 — rendering them "housing-cost burdened" — compared to just 29 percent in 2000. That group is likely to have kept growing along with the recovering housing market, Jackson said.
And even if the project does draw newcomers into the neighborhood, constituents should see that as a benefit instead of a risk, Arena said.
"I think what we've seen historically is that when schools and communities are ethnically and economically diverse, that's where humanity does best," the alderman said. "So I don't think we should be afraid of a little shift."
The first public meeting discussing the proposal is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the police station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave. So far, Arena hasn't budged in the face of appeals to move the meeting to a larger setting that could hold a larger audience.