Jose Lopez and the Gentrification of Humboldt Park, Part 2

Note: This is the second half of a piece that began earlier this week.

Humboldt Park garage

Which brings us to Lopez himself. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not his goals are “good”; I think I pretty much summarized my feelings in the last post, and I have a piece that takes a much longer look at this sort of problem coming out some time soon.

Instead, let’s take the goals for granted and consider his methods.

His plan for fending off gentrification largely involves shoring up the community…. Lopez rattles off a list of goals that includes strengthening schools, securing loans for Puerto Rican business owners, offering job training for parents, and expanding affordable housing for low-income Latinos….

Over the years, Lopez has managed to put up considerable roadblocks to outside development. In 2004, for example, he worked with Alderman Billy Ocasio to establish the 26th Ward Affordable Housing Committee. That initiative prevented developers from building anything in the district bigger than a single-family home without the committee’s approval….

Lopez has his own ideas for the kinds of businesses Humboldt Park needs: a bicycle factory (he also wants to increase the number of bike lanes and create a bike-share program), weekly markets where residents sell their produce, Puerto Rican bars that serve Caribbean spirits, and a theater that produces the work of Latino playwrights. “Developers should be about creating a city where people can coexist,” he says.

There’s a lot here, with varying levels of plausibility. Start with “shoring up the community.”

To the extent “shoring up the community” means making the people who currently live in Humboldt Park wealthier, more educated, etc., it will certainly increase their housing options. That means rising housing prices in Humboldt Park are less likely to displace them – but it also means they have more purchasing power to move elsewhere on their own. Traub is right that ethnic neighborhoods very rarely remain magnets for people of that ethnicity as the community’s income rises; even the most enduring ethnic neighborhoods in the city – the black communities of the South and West Sides – have remained so disproportionately black not because their residents haven’t left for other places, but because white, Hispanic, and Asian people have been unwilling to replace them.

fun cakes, stars area, candy ap

To the extent “shoring up the community” means creating new businesses, bike lanes, bars,  theaters, and so on, Lopez is actually encouraging the very housing cost increases, and displacement of the poor, that he’s so opposed to. That doesn’t mean those are bad policies, or that they don’t accomplish other goals, like institutionalizing Puerto Rican culture in Humboldt Park. It just means that adding amenities to a neighborhood that has too few will make the neighborhood more desirable, which will raise housing prices almost – almost – by definition.

Creating more subsidized housing can counteract that effect somewhat; given that eastern Humboldt Park is clearly in the path of gentrification, it’s not a bad idea to build as much of it as possible while land is relatively cheap to act as a bulwark against the tide of economic stratification that is sure to come. But short of building the kinds of massive public housing projects that the city, and country, have committed themselves to tearing down, there’s no way that subsidized housing will ever account for more than a small fraction of all housing in the neighborhood. In other words, it won’t stop the vast majority of displacement.

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that Lopez also supports exactly the kind of market-rate housing policies that have allowed prices in Wicker Park, Bucktown, and now Logan Square, to skyrocket and turn those areas disproportionately white. Preventing new housing units from being built just means that, when the gentrifiers come, they will have only one choice: the homes that are currently occupied by working-class Puerto Ricans.

Because the bottom line is this: there are no tools to prevent white people with money from living where they want. There are no laws, no community organizations, no cultural institutions that can turn them away. If that is your goal, you’re done before you started. (Why is that? Why can’t we just convince gentrifiers to stay out? Because the reason they’re moving to Humboldt Park is that they are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. The twentysomethings with college degrees but relatively low earnings who live in Humboldt Park now are doing so because they can no longer afford to live in Logan Square; the ones in Logan Square moved there after Wicker Park became too expensive; and the ones in Wicker Park were fleeing rising prices in Lincoln Park. The changes in Humboldt Park are just one rung on a ladder that’s being pushed further and further away from the center city, affecting everyone in its wake. There’s a sense, of course, in which the people moving into Humboldt Park have more resources, and so perhaps more agency, to make housing decisions than the people who already live there; but in a larger sense, they are also being manipulated by housing policies that create ever-escalating bidding wars in an expanding ring of neighborhoods.)

What you can try to do is make room for both those newcomers and the older residents of lesser means who might otherwise be displaced. When the gentrifiers arrive, they can either find housing by outbidding current residents for their own homes – that is, raising housing prices – or they can move into newly-built apartments and condos. If those new units are built on an empty lot, no one has been displaced; if they’re built more densely than the building that was torn down to make way – say, an eight-unit building replacing a two-unit one – then they’ve displaced far fewer people than would have been otherwise.

Humboldt Park

And that’s the best you can do: make it as easy as possible for those who would like to stay, to stay. Nothing Jose Lopez or anyone else does is going to convince those with means not to live as close to the center of the city’s wealth as is affordable for them. The dominant Puerto Rican culture of Humboldt Park is certainly going to change, although supporting Puerto Rican businesses and cultural institutions can help it maintain a presence. Subsidized housing can shelter a small minority of residents from market forces. Allowing more construction to house the newcomers can, potentially, shield many more from seeing their own apartments’ rents go up dramatically.

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