Since moving to Bronzeville in 2007, Vanessa Harris has seen the many vacant lots in her neighborhood get scooped up by developers and turned into $800,000 townhomes, some of them right outside her window.
A retired state employee, Harris, 66, bought her two-flat for $231,000 through the city’s New Homes for Chicago program, an initiative to help low- and moderate-income households purchase newly constructed homes.
Now, within the next year or two, she said she may be forced to leave the neighborhood — her property tax bills are becoming too difficult to afford.
With residential development in Bronzeville booming and home values rising, Harris has seen her property tax bills go from just under $2,000 to nearly $6,000 in the last 15 years, even with three exemptions. In 2021, her tax bill spiked nearly 22%, and the estimated value of her home is now $430,334, according to data from real estate company Remine’s Multiple Listing Service.
Harris is glad to see development in the neighborhood, but she does not want to leave Bronzeville.
“I would feel terrible because this is home for me,” Harris said. “I fear that I may have to relocate at some point and then where would I go? Rents are high if I want to stay in the same area and mortgage (payments) are high.”
Bronzeville, which has cycled through periods of investment and neglect for decades, is seeing a flood of new development as private investors and elected officials alike look to reshape the community, once a thriving cultural and business hub for Chicago’s Black community.
Now, in the latest sign of gentrification, the city’s largest real estate brokerage by sales volume and one of the nation’s largest residential real estate firms, @properties | Christie’s International Real Estate, is opening its first South Side office there at the end of March, in a formerly vacant lot at 4149 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
“If you look at what’s happening down there and you look at how other neighborhoods have progressed, first you see some of the gentrification and improvements in neighborhoods, particularly the housing stock, and then you see commercial infrastructure come in behind it,” said Mike Golden, co-CEO and co-founder of @properties.
“We hope to see that kind of progression down there,” he said.
Bronzeville residents have mixed emotions about the changes. Some are glad to see a historically disinvested neighborhood get attention, while others are wary, fearing residents such as Harris will be pushed out due to rising home prices. Some others feel torn.
“I can see the tension sometimes,” said Carlos Bester, who bought a five-bedroom home in the neighborhood with his wife in 2014. The property, which they purchased for $399,000, is now worth about $650,000.
“But at the same time, if you do it right — make yourself known, talk to people like they are people — then you build relationships and everybody is welcome.”
Bester, 45, was among a handful of curious neighbors who attended a recent open house for a newly rehabbed home on South St. Lawrence Avenue, a couple of blocks away from where Harris lives.
Formerly a boarded-up two-flat, the property now boasts four bedrooms and a master bathroom complete with a walk-in shower and large bathtub. The home also has a two-car garage and fourth-floor roof access in case a future resident wants to build a rooftop deck.
The home is one of @properties’ newest listings in Bronzeville, having gone on the market Feb. 2.
The list price: $749,000.
In Grand Boulevard, one of the community areas that includes Bronzeville, median monthly sales last year for all housing types ranged from a low of $247,000 in April to a high of $400,000 in December, according to data provided by the Chicago Association of Realtors from Midwest Real Estate Data. Annual median prices for single-family homes jumped nearly $200,000 between 2018 and 2022, with median prices at $610,000 in 2022.
As data from @properties shows, the company’s real estate portfolio in Bronzeville and other nearby South Side neighborhoods has quickly grown in the last three years.
From the beginning of 2020 to the end of last year, the company’s market share nearly doubled, and its sales volume and number of transactions grew by 67% and 35%, respectively, the company told the Tribune.
In 2020, the company’s properties in the neighborhood were valued at $18.9 million, with an average sale price of $346,489. In 2021, the company took over as the largest market share holder, and last year, its total portfolio was valued at $31.5 million, with an average sale price of $431,973.
Rising property values are hitting other neighborhoods near Bronzeville as well, such as Woodlawn and South Shore. As in Bronzeville, @properties has reported significant growth in Woodlawn, a community where residents have long feared rising housing costs associated with its soon-to-be neighbor, the Obama Presidential Center. Woodlawn won a five-year battle with the city to gain affordable housing protections.
Roderick Wilson, executive director of Lugenia Burns Hope Center, works to keep low-income and working families housed in Bronzeville and has seen the neighborhood through its various development stages over the years since he moved in 1997.
He said government and policymakers have to stabilize communities and not let the market keep driving out residents. His organization is in the process of trying to acquire land from the city to build affordable housing.
“People start buying, @properties and others, and then after that, they start to contribute to local politicians’ coffers and then policy starts to reflect what those developers want to do,” Wilson said.
“And then you see stuff start to happen for the sake of economic development, but economic development for whom? If it ain’t benefiting the people who are already there, why have it?”
This isn’t the first time Bronzeville has seen increased interest from the real estate community. The area experienced investment in the 1990s and early 2000s before the 2008 financial crisis, which sent the community spiraling backward.
Median monthly sale prices for all housing types in Grand Boulevard floated around $120,000 to $250,000 in 2008 before dropping below $100,000 from September 2009 until mid-2012, according to data provided by Chicago Association of Realtors from Midwest Real Estate Data.
Michelle Browne, an @properties agent who was at the recent open house, lived in Bronzeville from 1999 to 2013 and saw the changes firsthand.
“We had a number of disreputable builders and investors come in and build housing that didn’t quite take off the ground,” Browne said. “And then the recession cleaned all of that out.”
Now, she said almost all of the company’s properties in Bronzeville are built or in the process of being built on vacant land, with some rehabbed buildings thrown into the mix and rarely any already inhabited homes.
The company has often been at the forefront of residential development, opening offices in Bucktown and Wicker Park, with its first office located in Fulton Market when there was “nothing there but you were starting to see things happen,” Golden said.
Now, Fulton Market boasts high-rises and a lively restaurant scene.
“We feel like the growth opportunities now are really more in the south and maybe even more west down the road,” Golden said. “We want to be on the cutting edge of that trend.”
The new office will initially have 50 real estate agents based there, with more coming and going, according to Rick Sobin, managing broker for the Bronzeville @properties office. Agents will also work in surrounding neighborhoods such as Woodlawn and Hyde Park.
Sobin said he anticipates prospective homebuyers to spill over from more developed communities such as the South Loop and in and around the University of Chicago, as those neighborhoods are running short of space to house people.
“If you look at doctors and students and people that the university supports in Hyde Park and Kenwood, there is very little area left there (to house people),” Sobin said. “Bronzeville is the next logical place to go.”
Bronzeville, known as the “Black Metropolis,” was a thriving African American community flooded with people during the Great Migration in the early 1900s. Like in many areas across the United States, those who moved then faced restrictive covenants — legal orders that prohibited people from renting or selling to Black people — leading to racial segregation in Chicago housing.
After World War II, Bronzeville began to fall into disrepair. Once prosperous businesses and cultural centers were hurt by the exodus of Black Americans who chose to move elsewhere after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed restrictive covenants and the Chicago Housing Authority’s construction and destruction of public housing — all of which contributed to a rise in neglected properties.
Bronzeville — a neighborhood that remains overwhelmingly Black, according to the 2020 U.S. census — is now seeing a rush of investment again from governmental agencies and private developers.
Over the last four years, the average number of permits for new construction and renovation issued annually in Bronzeville’s three community areas — Douglas, Grand Boulevard and Oakland — has risen 9.2% over the average of the previous seven years, numbers that are consistent with trends on the South and West sides, according to the Department of Buildings.
Last year, a portion of the neighborhood was designated by Congress as a National Heritage Area, which pumps millions of dollars into preserving and maintaining buildings and traditions.
The city of Chicago is also a big investor in Bronzeville through Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program and other initiatives.
The $3.8 billion Bronzeville Lakefront development — housed on the 48-acre former site of the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center closed in 2008 — is bringing up to 7 million square feet of mixed-use space, including mixed-income housing, to the area. The city sold the property to the joint venture development group GRIT in 2017 after a request for proposals process.
Another project in the works is 43 Green, a $100 million mixed-use development with affordable and market-rate apartments located by the 43rd Street Green Line station, making it an equitable transit-oriented development.
Commercial spaces include Bronzeville Winery, which opened last year after receiving a $250,000 grant from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. And in February, Demera Ethiopian Restaurant received a $3.1 million community development grant from the city to open a location on the ground floor of a building that will also include office and residential space.
John Keaney of Keaney Construction began building in Bronzeville with his brother Kevin around 25 years ago and has been working consistently with @properties since 2015.
In the early aughts, townhomes he built in the area went for $250,000-$270,000 and were at the top of the market. Right before the pandemic, those numbers were around $550,000-$600,000; now they’re at $750,000-$800,000.
The rise in construction costs and land values, as well as the shortage in workers, led him to raise prices and continues to keep homes less affordable, Keaney said.
“If we could get our way, $500,000 would be nice,” said Keaney, who has been building townhomes in an attempt to keep prices more affordable to expand his pool of potential buyers. “But when you look at prices … it is next to impossible.”
Between 2020 and 2021, Keaney said his construction costs went up $100,000 per home. Nationally, prices for building materials have shot up 35.6% from the start of the pandemic through April 2022, as a surge in demand and delays led to shortages in supplies, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
And with land values that have more than doubled since before the pandemic, it is hard to find space to purchase, Keaney said.
On South Vernon Avenue down the street from 43 Green, Keaney is building five townhomes on a site that for decades housed a vacant building. Once they are completed in a few months, they’ll likely sell in the mid- to upper $700,000 range, according to Browne, the @properties agent.
The National Association of Home Builders released data Feb. 9 showing housing affordability — measured by the percentage of families earning the U.S. median income of $90,000 who could afford to buy a home — reached its lowest point since the organization started tracking the data consistently in 2012.
Rents have also gone up. In 60653, one of the primary Bronzeville ZIP codes, rents have steadily increased for years, with typical rents hovering in the $1,400s in 2020 for all housing types and now at nearly $1,700, according to a Zillow index analyzing census data on housing stock in the region and current rental listings.
Bronzeville homeowners and residents worry about the future of affordability and sense of community in the neighborhood.
Dhyia Thompson-Phillips is a consultant and daughter of famous Bronzeville jazz musician Malachi Thompson. She lived in and rented out her condo in Bronzeville for around 10 years starting in 2007 and has owned a single-family home since summer 2020.
Her condo was built during the days of shoddy construction, she said. This time, Thompson-Phillips is thrilled with her newly constructed, five-bedroom home from a builder who she said typically builds in Lincoln Park.
After a tough trek through the pandemic housing market boom, Thompson-Phillips, 44, said she and her husband bought their house for around $689,000 before seeing their neighbors pay $825,000 for a similar house next door around a year and a half later.
Thompson-Phillips came to Bronzeville not only because she grew up spending time in the neighborhood with her father, but also because of the location, with its close proximity to the lake, expressways, downtown and Hyde Park.
“I think a lot of people who bought here are really committed to that vision of what it could be in the future,” Thompson-Phillips said.
She hopes new construction will bring more commercial development and basic amenities such as grocery stores in the near future so that the neighborhood is more like what she saw in 2007, and so that there is less crime.
“There is not enough to bring the community together,” Thompson-Phillips said. “You have working folks and middle class and upper class, and we are all neighbors, but I just wish there were more things that brought us together to anchor us as a community.”
Thompson-Phillips is neighbors with Harris, the resident whose rising property taxes may force her to move. Harris, who retired in 2018 from the state’s Department of Children and Family Services after more than 32 years, said she loves Bronzeville for its convenient access to the lake and 24-hour bus lines.
But financial worries loom. Harris said that while she could look for work again, she suffered an aneurysm and has to take care of her health. She also said she had negative experiences with renters during the pandemic and won’t rent out her second unit to strangers to supplement her fixed income.
Harris lost her last three property tax appeals and is in the process of scheduling an in-person hearing. If all else fails and she’s forced to move, having an @properties office in Bronzeville offers a silver lining, she said.
“The good thing about it is if I am forced to sell, they will make it affordable for me to go somewhere else,” Harris said.