This article was produced with support from City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.

Wet leaves sit idle on flawless concrete. Bright orange parking tickets tucked underneath windshield wipers flap in the wind. Small white children torpedo into mysterious piles of leaves. The brisk air hits my face as I sit socially distanced from a friend in the park. It is autumn in Oak Park. 

A year and a half ago, I moved into a charming, yellowstone apartment building on Taylor Avenue in Oak Park. Less than a city block away to the west are prairie-style homes designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Just a few more city blocks in that same direction is a bustling Pete’s grocery store and a strip of boutiques, quaint coffee shops and restaurants. Oak Park is calm. I like that it’s quiet, but not too quiet. 

The sounds of sirens do not allow me to fully escape Austin, the neighborhood I grew up in. Less than a city block east of my apartment is the intersection of Madison Street and Austin Boulevard. At this junction sits a 24-hour currency exchange, a hair salon owned by an Egyptian man that doesn’t allow children inside and a U.S. bank with a perpetually malfunctioning ATM. 

On my block, the quiet suburban enclave that is Oak Park and the boisterous and sprawling community of Austin seem to converge. The two neighborhoods perform a delicate and dexterous game of Twister, carefully avoiding one another. The guys camped in the intersections washing car windows with mystery solutions for meager fees never venture too far west on Oak Park Avenue. The paleteros ring their bells as they saunter past Ridgeland Common Park but never set up shop. 

Mere blocks apart the differing level of investment between Oak Park and Austin is more than a statistical curiosity to me. It’s my life. Deciding between the two communities means choosing drastically different qualities of life — fresh produce or convenience stores, a long life expectancy or a short one. 

Decades of disinvestment after white flight, redlining and multiple recessions are to blame, but where do we go from here? How can Chicago thrive if our only solutions are to ask Austin residents to stay in decrepit, predatorily loaned family homes or to leave to have safety and job opportunities? 

When I began looking for an apartment in 2019, Oak Park was not on my mind. I was barbacking at a fine dining restaurant in the West Loop. Carrying crates of wine, chopping citrus and being ignored by customers was grueling on top of the long hours that strained relationships with family and friends. I was desperately seeking community and thought moving back home to the West Side might be the answer. I combed through Chicago listings and found tons of affordable units.

East Garfield Park: 3 Bedroom, 1 bath, No pets, No evictions, $1200.

Violent crime rampant in East Garfield Park according to Chicago’s Data Portal. 

West Garfield Park: 2 Bedroom, 1 Bath, Wine Fridge (Wow!), Cats Allowed, $925.

Closest Grocery store 6 miles away.

Austin: 1 Bedroom, 1 Bath, Pets, Balcony, $875.

Low ridership on the CTA Green Line branch due to long wait times. No restaurants or bars in the vicinity at which I could make a living. 

Affordable housing 

Grocery store in close proximity: negative

Safe: negative

Living wage job opportunities: negative

So I expanded my search radius.

Oak Park: 1 Bedroom, 1 Bath, No Pets, Credit Score 600+, 6 Months of Pay Stubs, Income more than 3x Rent, $950.

Grocery store in walking distance

Neighborhood coffee shop

Bustling food and restaurant scene

No violent crime

I paused as a wave of excitement passed over me. This apartment, not much pricier than the apartments in Austin, met all of my needs. As I read over the qualifications and vetting process my initial excitement dissipated and I wondered if someone like me, Black and low-income, could secure an apartment in Oak Park. 

My search for desirable housing on the West Side waned. I decided to explore how the city and private lenders are attempting to mitigate the issues of neighborhoods like Austin. According to Daniel Hertz, policy director at the Chicago Department of Housing, last year $10 million in rehab loans were distributed through the neighborhood lending program. 

The South and West Sides received the majority of those funds. These Chicago neighborhoods are full of residential rental properties that are unsubsidized by any federal program, but are naturally affordable. I asked mission-based lender Stacie Young if the naturally occurring affordable housing in neighborhoods such as Austin is actually a good thing. “It’s great. In fact, it’s a commodity,” she said.

However, I wasn’t so sure about that. Especially considering the fact that Community Investment Corporation, the policy collaborative Young works with, has been giving out high-risk loans in the same neighborhoods for decades. I remembered all the affordable listings I had combed through; there had been quite a few two and three flats with new windows and doors. Those properties had most likely benefited directly from neighborhood lending. I pictured myself living in one of those freshly rehabbed apartments with big windows, surveying the boarded up businesses at the corner and used needles in the bike lane. 

Austin, which is predominantly made up of two- to four-unit buildings saw property sales go down drastically from 2005 to 2015. The percentage of properties purchased for less than $20,000 increased from .5% in 2005 to 7.9% in 2015. The millions the city funneled into low-income neighborhoods via high-risk loans and building rehab projects seem to have done little for property prices, actual homeownership or overall desirability for neighborhoods such as  Austin. Private developers would rather make money refinancing vacant lots on Madison rather than opening movie theaters or building brick and mortars for small businesses. 

The city’s efforts to combat decades of disinvestment does not stop at neighborhood lending. The Department of Housing’s focus on inclusionary housing aims to create affordable housing in high-cost neighborhoods.


My own apartment search included a few affordable units in luxury developments in West Town and West Loop. However, grocery shopping at Fox Trot Market and a long commute via the Green Line back home to Austin to see family and friends didn’t seem appeasing. 

All developments built in Chicago beginning in 2007 have had the option to create affordable units on-site or pay an in-lieu fee. Nearly 11,010 projects have paid fees totaling more than $85 million dollars, according to records obtained by City Bureau through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Most of these developments, which are privately funded and operated, are located on the North Side of the city. While high-income neighborhoods receive beautiful developments and new businesses, low-income neighborhoods receive Low Income Housing Trust Fund and Affordable Housing Trust fund donations. Those funds subsidize rents for low-income citizens through grants and reduced rents on units. 

But what if those funds were used to ameliorate the core issue? In 2019, I was searching for affordable housing because I was being paid $6.50 an hour working as a bartender. What if those millions went to a universal base income to eliminate low-income renters, owners and eventually neighborhoods? 

The woman operating a candy store out of her garage could open a brick-and-mortar shop. The community garden on my great-grandmother’s block would be able to expand and provide food as well as a safe haven for neighborhood kids. The small shops that often employ people who have been incarcerated might be able to keep their doors open and provide more opportunity. Small organizations such as 360 Nation, a West Side-based organization that utilizes education and mutual aid to promote positive development in the Black community, could expand neighborhood education for Black youth. 

Teach a woman to fish and you feed her for a lifetime. More aptly, pay her a living wage and hand her funds that have been allocated elsewhere historically and you house her and her family for generations. Subsidized rents, low-income housing, and privately funded high risk loans have existed for awhile. However, if the city isn’t increasing wages and providing higher incomes isn’t it simply perpetuating the need for those policies? 

The West Side of Chicago, despite its shortfalls, is my home. As a Black, queer woman, it’s invaluable seeing people who look like me and my family in my community. Conversely, it is demoralizing to have to leave my community in search of a living wage paying job, grocery stores and safety. 

This summer, as convenience stores, banks and luxury shops burned in the wake of police murders, I watched my community gallantly redistribute money, food, medicine. If my community —  historically defunded, redlined, and forgotten — can persevere in the face of such adversity, I have a duty to be a part of that effort. 

Neighborhoods such as Austin, North Lawndale, South Shore, and so many others deserve more than leftovers from private developments. We deserve capital and median income that will precipitate development and investment. We deserve grocery stores, neighborhood coffee shops and bookstores. We deserve safe morning jogs, bike lanes and city blocks unfettered by police barricades. 

I thought moving to Oak Park could erase the implications of growing up in a neighborhood like Austin. That wasn’t the case for me. Even though I’m still struggling, I plan to do it in and with my own community. A living wage job and owning property are less far flung prospects than they were in March and as those things materialize for me, I plan to do my best to make sure others in my community attain them as well.

is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She recently covered housing as a 2020 City Bureau fellow.