Public Works: Chicago Pays Out to Stop Gentrification
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Public Works: Chicago Pays Out to Stop Gentrification

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Owners of homes near Chicago’s 606 Bloomingdale Trail and Park are now eligible for forgivable loans to help stem gentrification. Courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

It is the most common, clichéd, and necessary question of city development: How do you rejuvenate a neighbourhood without gentrifying its longtime residents right out of the area?

Chicago seems to have the answer.

The 606 Bloomingdale Trail and Park in northwest Chicago is a $95-million USD municipal project that turns an old elevated rail line into more than four kilometres of public paths and four city parks.

The three-metre-wide walking trail, flanked by cycle paths and budding greenery, opened in June 2015. By November, more than 50,000 bulbs were being planted in anticipation of the 606’s first full spring.

It’s a shining example of converting disused infrastructure into community space, making the most of the urban landscape, and offering city dwellers a chance to get out and get active.

But, like any improvement project, the 606 also threatened to bring an influx of hip, young professional couples, nesters who would (indirectly) squeeze the old residents out.

The nearby Logan Square neighbourhood has already become the West Queen West of Illinois.

The addition of an urban cycle path—the natural habitat of the North American gentrifier—could only make things worse.

“I told [locals], ‘Be careful, this is going to drive up rents and assessed values,’” local alderman Roberto Maldonado told the Chicago Tribune. “Now they are worried about the impact to long-term residents.”

But now, in an effort to help those old-timers, the non-profit Neighbourhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHSC) is offering “forgivable” loans of up to $25,000 to local homeowners who need cash to fix up their place.

The NHSC has $1 million, provided by the City of Chicago, to award on a first come, first serve basis, so that people of “modest income” can afford to make improvements to their aging homes and stay in neighbourhood.

Homeowners can use the money toward a new roof, doors, windows, siding, plumbing, electrical, heating, or a coat of paint.

The loans are interest-free, and are erased bit by bit with each month that the recipients stay in the home. After 48 months, the debt is completely wiped away.

The 606 is a great idea, but it will radically change that slice of Chicago. And while a million bucks is certainly not enough to stop the tide of gentrification, it can keep some of the northwest side’s residents in their homes a little longer. It can make the gentrification process a little smoother, a little happier. And that must be worth it.