A bit of background


My name is Anya. I write about the policies surrounding affordable housing as well as the stories of the people who rely on this public resource.

My interest in affordable housing began when I was in elementary school and my father explained to me the process of gentrification. I had commented, while driving through an in-transition neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, past row upon row of strip malls, that I wished the area were nicer. I don’t know what prompted my comment, I can only surmise it had something to do with the once-resplendent, but now run-down, homes on the surrounding streets. (This was a period in my life when I was also becoming interested in historic preservation, and every neglected house was viewed as a personal affront to my sensibilities).

My father’s answer unlocked a wave of confusion.

In order for the neighborhood to become clean, safe and desirable (and for the buildings to regain some of their former sheen), the current, poor residents could not remain. The cost of development would spike the cost of living. When rent and groceries became too expensive, my dad explained, most people would have no choice but to move to other poor neighborhoods. The cycle would begin again if (and when) their new community was chosen for renovation.

What happens when there are no more places for the people to go? I demanded.

His response: they simply move further and further out. I knew he was correct. The outskirts, the far reaches of LA, always made me most depressed.

I was not a politically minded child, not the type to raise thousands of dollars for a cause by knocking on doors and creating publicity. So the conflict between my desire to live in a well-maintained city and my desire to not force people from their homes faded behind other passions -architecture, writing, running. Until the fall of 2012 when I visited Uptown, a neighborhood on Chicago’s far north side.

The scene I saw reminded me sharply of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Gorgeous buildings boarded up or repurposed  for disparate uses. Rich and poor co-existing without interacting. A mix of nostalgia, development and shabbiness. New mixed in with old, and a pull in the atmosphere between eras. I was entranced.

I wanted to discover why I was drawn to this neighborhood that had clearly seen better days. The streets were dirty and I had heard stories of drugs, violence and chronic homelessness. Through research, I learned about the historically diverse community and about Uptown’s historically significant entertainment district. I could observe, in the buildings and storefronts, the class struggles. And yet, everyone I spoke with who had lived in Uptown spoke of it with surprised fondness. After each complaint about homeless people and negligent landlords came a smile, and a story about a chance encounter with someone who had been outside their traditional social circle –whether a store owner or a neighbor or a random stranger. Fueled by an interest in these stories, I determined to find the reason, the one rational explanation, for all of Uptown’s contradictions.

With the enormous help of my friend Ilana, my investigation in to Uptown began. We interviewed a cross-section of the Uptown community and then had the lucky fortune of coming in contact with Laura at Mercy Housing, a non-profit management and development organization for affordable housing buildings. With her help and with the immense generosity of the Mercy Housing residents, we were given access to an avenue of the Uptown community that has proven integral to our understanding of Uptown’s complexities.

The eloquence expressed by the residents during our interviews showed us that we could not discover even an approximate truth about Uptown without their words. They told us about their memories of Uptown before gang violence transformed the streets; about the staggeringly expensive condos that are built down the block from sparse low-income apartments; about community members from dozens of countries, all of whom speak a different language; about young people who are barely starting out on their own and elderly people who have lived in the same apartment for decades; about people without homes and people who are proud to have even a small bedroom; about those who feel safe and those who feel constantly threatened. We learned that some people talk to their neighbors and some keep to themselves; that some spend their days within a prescribed radius, frequenting only certain shops and streets, and that some make it a priority to constantly push the boundaries of their comfort zones. We learned that there are residents who are optimistic that the neighborhood will improve but also those who are convinced that it will continue to struggle indefinitely. None of these people are without a story.

My work here is to share the stories of residents in affordable buildings both in Chicago and nationwide, as well as the difficulties I encounter while trying to write authentically about each individual. I have never understood why equality in this country does not extend to housing. I hope my work will play a small part in dispelling this disparity.

Thank you and happy reading.