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Barack Obama wants to build his new Presidential Center in Chicago’s South Side, but is resisting calls to sign a community agreement that would protect residents from soaring rents and displacement. We speak to community activist Jawanza Malone

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AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

Years before he became president, Barack Obama got his start as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Now out of the White House, Obama is coming back to the south side to build his $500 million presidential center. But Obama now faces a pushback from the same community he once organized with. For months, south side residents have been holding protests. They don’t oppose the center, but they want to make sure it doesn’t cause gentrification and displacement.

SPEAKER: So we’re here to make this stand, to say that we don’t want displacement to happen in this community. We don’t want to see the jobs come from outside, be filled by people from the outside, the people living here don’t get a chance to work.

AARON MATE: South side residents have formed a coalition, calling on Obama to sign a community benefits agreement which, among other things, would help protect low income residents from eviction and higher rents. Coalition Member Paru Brown outlined their demands.

PARU BROWN: We are pushing for a city ordinance that would, one, set aside 30 percent of new and rehab housing for low-income and working families; two, freeze property taxes for longtime residents; three, require large developers like the University of Chicago to invest in new affordable housing; and four, independently monitor local hiring.

AARON MATE: But Obama and his foundation are refusing to sign a CBA. The former president recently told Chicago residents why.

BARACK OBAMA: And the danger here is that if we sign an agreement with any one organization, or two organizations, or five organizations-. I’ve lived on the south side and in Chicago long enough to know that they’re not representing everybody on the south side. So now suddenly I’ve got five other organizations to say, hey, how come, how come you signed with them? What about us? And then you got 10, oh, I just formed an organization. You know what I’m talking about. And next thing you know you’ve got 40 organizations or 50 organizations, everybody has their own organization, saying we should get, we should have say, control, decision-making over who gets the contract, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

AARON MATE: Well, Obama’s plans have now taken a big step forward. The Obama center has just won approval from two city commissions and the full City Council, moving the project to federal review. South side activists are not giving up their fight. Jawanza Malone is executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and a member of the Obama library South Side CBA coalition. Jawanza, welcome. Talk to us first just about the struggle that you’ve been involved in for many months now, and the state of it now, and the aftermath of these city votes moving the project forward.

JAWANZA MALONE: Thanks for having me on, Aaron. For the last two and a half years, actually, the CBA coalition has been working to craft a community benefits agreement that involves not just the Obama Foundation but also the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago. In all the turmoil and excitement around President Obama himself, people forget that the University of Chicago is actually the entity that wrote the bill that was awarded to get the Presidential Center on the south side of Chicago in Jackson Park. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel had, you know, said two years ago that he was willing to move heaven and earth to make sure that it happened. And that’s what we’re, we’re seeing it happen over concerns raised with the city councilmen, over concerns raised by the community, particularly about where the money is going to come from for the infrastructure changes that the foundation has called for.

As you said in your intro, the city council and a quasi-governmental appointed body has voted to approve the plan moving forward. What we’ve been asking for is very simple. We’re asking for a legally binding agreement to ensure that residents are not, do not continue to get displaced from the area, because we’ve already seen displacement taking place. And so without a clear community benefits agreement that protects low-income and working families, who is the predominant population in that part of town, we’re going to see mass displacement of people, unfortunately.

AARON MATE: So, Obama himself has been pushing back very forcefully against this notion you’re putting forward, that his center would cause displacement. And I want to play more of what he said to Chicago residents at a recent public event.

BARACK OBAMA: So there are going to be some people who will not be happy, and are not going to sign up for every single aspect of this project, which is the, it is the nature of a project of this size. But here’s the thing, is like, you can never make folks 100 percent happy. So we want to be open. We want to listen. We are going to be fairer than fair, to quote Harold Washington, in how we approach the design of this presidential center. And the programming that’s involved is going to continually evolve to meet the specific needs of the community. But at some point we’re going to get going.

AARON MATE: That’s President Obama, former President Obama, saying we’re going to get going. Jawanza, if you can respond to that, and also what he outlined in that clip you played earlier where he says that his problem with a community benefits agreement is that if you sign an agreement with one or two groups, that you’re going to have many more groups demanding, sprouting up demanding that they make an agreement with the Obama center as well.

JAWANZA MALONE: Sure. So let me start by saying later, in his most recent presentation to the community, the former president also said that gentrification is not an issue that we need to be concerned about. And I think he said that perhaps Malia’s children will have to deal with that issue, but not us. And so that assertion is, as well as some of the comments you played for your viewers, we disagree. A simple look at the data would indicate that the Woodlawn community, in particular, is gentrifying. And when we look at the impact of just the announcement that the presidential center is going in Jackson Park, we see the impact, the real estate speculators coming into the area.

Just last year, Redfin, one of these trade associations that conduct studies on property value across the country, found Woodlawn to have the third highest increase in property value for neighborhoods across the country. So when we think about that for a second, you take every neighborhood, in every city, in every single state in a country, the predominantly African American, low-income community of Woodlawn had the third-highest increase in property value.

And that’s a direct result of, again, this speculative market of banking on increased interest in that area as a result of the presidential center coming. And so what we’ve been calling for consistently is an ordinance. When you look at the construct of community benefit agreement, you typically have a developer, you have the community, and oftentimes you have the government or some entity coming in to make the agreement legally binding. That’s the same thing we consistently have been asking for here. So we did the hard work of engaging hundreds of residents in the communities surrounding Jackson Park where the center is being built to find out from them what it is that they need to feel safe and secure, to protect them from displacement, and to ensure there’s long term benefit. It produced a document that has six areas of focus. And we went to our city council, our elected representatives, to say, look, we’ve done the hard work. Let’s go the rest of this course together in partnership. We engaged the University of Chicago in the same conversation, as well as the Obama Foundation, and they chose not to take us up on it.

AARON MATE: Jawanza, why do you think that, why do you think they chose not to engage in the CBA?

JAWANZA MALONE: Frankly, I don’t know. You know, I don’t want to speculate as to why the parties involved have chosen not to hear the community’s concerns and wishes and fears, and do something different. I do think that the fact that it does force a higher level of transparency and accountability has to be something that’s being considered, when we take into account all the promises that have been made in the city of Chicago from the elected representatives, as well as others, and those promises not being brought to fruition. This smacks of the Chicago way. The same old thing that we’ve seen time and time again. And hopefully that’s not what’s happening here.

AARON MATE: All right. We’ll take a break there and come back in Part 2. My guest is Jawanza Malone. He is executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and a member of the Obama Library South Side CBA Coalition.

AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. This is Part 2 with Jawanza Malone. He is executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a member of the Obama library South Side CBA Coalition. And we’re talking about his involvement in the grassroots fight that’s been going on for several years now in Chicago’s south side, demanding that President Obama, in building his new Obama center, his plans to build a new Obama center there, sign a community benefits agreement, one that would protect low-income residents from rent increases and also be a curb on gentrification.

So Jawanza, I want to go back to more of Obama’s comments from a recent public event that he held where he talked about his reasons for rejecting a CBA.

BARACK OBAMA: So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses, more opportunity for our kids, but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same. It just doesn’t work that way. But what we can do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefiting. Those are the kinds of plans, activities, foresight that we have to have in order to get that perfect balance, revitalizing and renewing the community, but also making sure that people who are already living there are benefiting from it.

AARON MATE: That’s former President Barack Obama speaking at a recent public event in Chicago about his plans to build his center in the south side. So Jawanza, if you can respond to that. Two things, there. First, Obama saying that opponents of the center can’t be stuck in the past, and that, you know, if he wants, the community wants development and wants opportunity, they have to embrace change, and an opportunity like this one, which will bring jobs and money into the community. And also, he also says there that he is working with community organizations. Has that been the case?

JAWANZA MALONE: So let me say, first off, we, again, don’t oppose the presidential center, right. But there’s a term that we use here that I know some of your viewers around the country and other parts of the world may be familiar with: development without displacement. We recognize, right, that the Woodlawn community, as well as the Southshore community, in large swathes of the south side in general, have been without investment. In fact, there’s been intentional disinvestment and marginalization of these communities.

So we are fighting against, not development. We aren’t fighting against increased interest and capital coming into these communities. What we are vehemently opposing is displacement, and the notion that in order to make the community better you have to push poor people out of their community. We feel that that is outrageous, and is a complete insult to low-income and working families across the world. When we look at the vacant lots where nothing is happening, particularly in the Woodlawn community, east Woodlawn community, the city of Chicago owns a large portion of that land. So historically with the city of Chicago has done on vacant lots that they own, particularly in that part of town, is that they’ve placed market-rate housing and/or luxury housing on those lots. That doesn’t benefit the community who’s already there.

Just blocks away from where the presidential center is going, there has been a rehab development taking place. And some of those units, two-bedroom apartment or-. Two-bedroom apartment. The rest is starting at $1400 a month. Now, the median income in that area does not support paying $1400 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. And so our question is, if these are the type of developments, housing developments, that are coming online, then it’s obvious what the plan is. And we were able to recently stop a property owner from illegally raising rent on subsidized tenants in the development across the street from Jackson Park. And we had to get the city involved. If we had not intervened, you would have dozens of people who were pushed out. Unfortunately, there still were people, once they received the notice of their rent increase, who began to pack their things and find someplace else that was affordable for them.

But for the most part we were able to hold that off, for the people who sought our support and assistance. And so the reality is if there are not clear protections that’s codified into law, we’re going to see mass displacement take place in these communities.

AARON MATE: So Jawanza, this strikes me as a very unique fight against gentrification, because it’s hard enough for community residents to organize under normal circumstances, because activism is challenging. But now you’re doing it against someone who is beloved in the African-American community, and has, is one of the most influential people in the entire world. So I’m wondering, there are residents who had voiced support for the Obama center in the south side, and I’m wondering just what sort of challenges you’ve come up against while organizing over these past few years. On top of the fact, by the way, that this story has not gotten very much national attention, perhaps because of the general stature that Obama has amongst political and media elites.

JAWANZA MALONE: Well, we’re unfortunately very familiar with the media blackout in a national [inaudible]. What I’ll say is that it’s a unique phenomenon here, where the former president has really placed himself front and center to take the heat on this project. Again, the University of Chicago wrote the bid, right. And within a year of it being announced that they won the bid, and that the presidential center was going to go on the south side, blocks away from the university’s campus, they announced they were building a brand new conference center blocks away from where the center is going. A few months after that they announced that they’re building a brand new hotel. Again, blocks away from where the presidential center is going.

So in our opinion, the University of Chicago wrote the bid with their bottom line in mind. They’re attempting to leverage the legacy of the first black president of the United States to increase their endowment, to bring in new revenue streams. And the city of Chicago is complicit. They are actively involved in gentrifying and displacing low income and working families from large parts of the city of Chicago. In fact, a study came out recently that Chicago has, again, lost population. And the majority of the people who have been pushed out of the city of Chicago are low-income and working families. And so while the former president is front and center, it is his name that’s, you know, on the building, it’s his memorabilia that will be inside these buildings, it’s not just the former president. It’s the University Chicago that we have a long track record of doing battle with to preserve the integrity of the south side, as well as the city of Chicago.

And I don’t think anybody is a stranger to the catastrophe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been to particularly black residents in the city of Chicago. So that’s really who we’re up against here.

AARON MATE: So let me go to one more clip of Obama from that public event, where he talks about the impact of gentrification.

BARACK OBAMA: It is not my experience during that time that the big problem on the south side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too, you know, too many people being displaced because all these folks from Lincoln Park are all pouring into the south side. That’s not what’s happened. We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification. Malia’s kids might have to worry about that. Right now what we’ve got to worry about is broken curbs, and trash, and boarded-up buildings, and that’s what, that’s what we’d really need to work on.

AARON MATE: That was Barack Obama. So, Jawanza, that was the part of his remarks that you mentioned in Part 1 of this interview. You talked about Obama saying that maybe his daughter Malia might have to worry about gentrification, and her children. So as we wrap, what is happening now? You’ve just gotten what I thought was a pretty important or significant endorsement from Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper, who Obama has said is is one of, is one of his favorite rappers. And in a tweet, Chance came out and said that while he supports the Obama center, that Obama should sign a community benefits agreement showing that maybe, that this issue is not going away and it’s getting some visibility. So where does the struggle go from here?

JAWANZA MALONE: Sure. No, this issue is not going anywhere, at all. We can’t afford to. And we greatly appreciate Chance the Rapper weighing in on this issue. He’s demonstrated his love and interest for everyday people in the city of Chicago, and not being afraid to take our elected officials to task for, frankly, the job that they refuse to do. So we are heartened by his tweet. We would love to see him continue to engage in this dialogue. We are moving forward. We are demanding that the city council codify protections for the residents of this city. I think it’s a travesty that our elected officials do not do more to recognize the needs of their constituents. We have two aldermen in particular situated in this part of town. Obviously it’s going to impact the entire south side, and the city. But you have two wards that will be directly impacted by this development. And all the evidence and indication from independent researchers to historical record point to the fact that people will be pushed out of this neighborhood by this development coming in. When you look at large-scale development across the country, you see displacement as a byproduct of that.

So it’s really incumbent on them to, to move forward. And so we’re going to continue to push our elected officials to do the right thing on this. There has to be protections for people that are codified into law. .

AARON MATE: Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a member of the Obama library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, thank you.


AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.

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Aaron Maté is a former host/producer for The Real News and a contributor to the Nation. He has previously reported and produced for Democracy Now!, Vice, and Al Jazeera, and written for the Toronto Star, the Intercept, and Le Monde Diplomatique.