The broader Chicagoland community has faced significant change to its population since its origins. With each change, the city has seen its culture and population shift in large and subtle ways. Whether the population change comes through European immigration, the migration of Black Americans north during the Industrial Revolution, or emigration as the great production centers of the American midwest experienced hardship at the end of the 20th Century, the culture and communities of Chicagoland have adapted and changed.
With this population change and community adaptation comes change in distribution of land and demographic makeup of communities. In modern days, when we see these changes and as community leaders strive to provide for inhabitants of the city, a careful balance must be struck between the natural shifts in population and a more sinister shift: gentrification.
Gentrification in Chicagoland
While “gentrification” has in many ways become a meaningless buzzword in some corners of the internet, subbed in anywhere that population shifts, loss, and growth have resulted in greater poverty and disenfranchisement, there are important nuances and considerations that should be remembered and considered when discussing how communities can resist gentrification and how property development firms can support these communities. By removing this care and nuance, the project of resisting poverty and better supporting the communities which need it the most is undermined and in some cases halted.
Before getting any farther, it’s important to explicitly define gentrification as we’re using it here. Gentrification as it stands in Chicago “is a process that has altered the demographic composition of some neighborhoods in Chicago usually by decreasing the percentage of low-income minority residents and increasing the percentage of typically white, higher-income residents.” What’s key in this definition is that it underscores the manipulation and change perpetrated by non-community developers coming in and pushing the disenfranchised out to make room for wealthy, typically white individuals. This points to how some property developers are working to resist gentrification – by truly being part of the community in which they wish to build, renovate, and operate. This commitment is key to the movement and will be discussed in greater detail shortly.
Property developers looking to help
As communities change and investors come in to build new properties in longstanding communities, encourage new commercial ventures in local markets, and, oftentimes, stoke gentrification, they’re replacing the communities and cultures already in place. Whether or not this practice comes about through intention, this is why it’s so important that any property developers with a desire to resist gentrification to engage wholeheartedly in the communities with which they interact.
As developers seek to build new buildings and to add new living accommodations to a community, they must allow for the people who live in the community to be full members of the process, not replacing vital cultural institutions but augmenting them with additional resources and support, not replacing current affordable housing but working with providers to support a mix of access and development. There are a variety of methods with which developers can support these initiatives including resource grants, community forums, and leadership positions on community boards. One promising tactic, deconverting luxury condos, we’ll discuss in the specific context of Chicago.
Deconverting luxury condominiums
Deconverting luxury condominiums is the practice of carefully and intentionally turning expensive, large unit buildings into more affordable small-unit buildings. This method has been used with great success around the country, with developers in Chicago leading the way. The facade and core structure of the buildings are often kept intact preserving the history and familiarity of the buildings, but the use changes to allow for a greater diversity of people with greater diversity of income to live there. Beal Properties of Chicago are leaders in this initiative in the greater Chicagoland – as they have acquired old properties and engaged in the more expensive though more environmentally friendly practice of deconverting luxury condos into higher volume multi-family properties. This is just one way in which Beal Properties has managed to position itself as a leader in the property development industry when it comes to resisting gentrification and maintaining real relationships with the communities in which the company works.
In addition to this more fine, careful form of renovation and development, Beal Properties has shown the importance of engaging with the community both financially and with their time investment. For a property development firm to truly engage with a community means that the employees of the company must come from the community, the company must support organizations local to the community, and a relationship between the company and the tenants, new and old, of the community must include ongoing and honest accountability. This is a key value of Beal Properties, one which other property developer wishing to resist gentrification while still providing excellent service would do well to follow.
A holistic approach to community support
As property developers work to continue to invest in their communities, continue to grow their relationships with citizens, and continue to engage in the broader challenge of resisting gentrification, they must do so with a holistic approach. As mentioned, true resistance to gentrification and the inequities therein requires an awareness of eco-friendly approaches to development. Deconverting existing buildings is often more expensive for developers than to build an entirely new building where an old one stood, but it is better for the community and for the environment to go slowly, to deconvert. By making these decisions form a holistic position, the broader value both for the business and for the community is made apparent.
There’s no silver bullet when it comes to ending gentrification while simultaneously developing properties to meet the demand for quality and affordable living accommodations for all residents of Chicago. But thinking that the only way forward is perfection is exactly the kind of resistance and obstacle that prevents progress. As companies continue to work to solve this problem and develop creative solutions, it requires courageous leaders who are willing to listen to their communities. This kind of example set by Beal Properties will surely continue to lead the way in Chicagoland and beyond for years to come.