Just off one of the busiest streets in my community there lies an apartment building, Parkside Apartments.
In an upper-middle class community filled with well-kept homes, Parkside stands out: It looks dilapidated. It's most prevalent window treatments are sheets, hung askew. There is no landscaping. Regardless of how hot it is, there are always people outside this apartment complex. Men and women standing together, conversing; Children laughing and playing.
In a suburban world that leaves few moments for unscheduled socialization and play, this is, in and of itself, unusual. However, in our community, the occupants of this apartment complex stand out for other reasons as well.
Most are not from the United States. This is readily apparent because unlike the majority of people in our upper-middle class community, this apartment complex's occupants aren't white. Not only that, they don't always dress like typical Americans do, sometimes preferring to wear clothes more reflective of the countries from which they've come. For most, English is not their first language.
Though it's obvious the occupants of this apartment complex are not from the United States, what's less obvious is how they got here. I'm sure there are people who assume they're “illegals”.
In reality, many of the residents of this apartment complex are refugees – people forced to flee their country for fear of persecution or death. These are individuals who, because of circumstances far beyond their control, were displaced from their home and relocated elsewhere. Typically, they first flee to a refugee camp in a neighboring country where they wait for years, hoping their home will become safe enough to return. After years of waiting, some decide instead to apply to be resettled elsewhere, in a third, foreign country they do not get to choose.
These refugees are courageous; They are resilient. They are survivors, who despite the great odds stacked against them, are managing. Regardless of how well-educated they are or how prestigious a job they worked in their home, most work a minimum wage job here. They struggle to juggle paying for rent, utilities, and food. Despite this, few complain. They are thankful for the dilapidated apartment they call home. After all, they are safe and it is theirs. They are confident that as long as they pay rent, they will not be displaced again.
But then the unthinkable happened.
In mid-June, these people, these refugees (as well as all the tenants of Parkside) received a notice via mail from the Village of Glen Ellyn explaining that their apartment complex lies within a district that is being proposed for a TIF, (Tax Increment Financing), a tool provided to local governments to assist them in stimulating investment in areas which have difficulty attracting development or redevelopment or jumpstarting economically sluggish parts of the community. With this tool, local governments can make improvements to areas in need and provide incentives to attract businesses or help existing businesses expand without tapping into general funds or raising taxes.
The notice was written in legalese, nearly impossible for most Americans who speak English as their first language to understand; Most certainly impossible for refugees who don't to understand.
Despite this, I'm sure one word of this document jumped out at these residents: Displacement. For according to this notice, “it is reasonably expected that the proposed redevelopment project area may result in the displacement of residents.”
Imagine the fear such a phrase would evoke in a people group who's already been displaced.
As Wani, a refugee who has lived in Parkside since being resettled in the United States on June 17, 2004, said at a packed public meeting held in Glen Ellyn about the proposed TIF District, “When I received that notification, I struggled. I asked my kids to read this letter. I went to two terms: relocation and displacement. I was displaced from my country and today also in this wonderful country the same thing is happening. I don't want to go away from Parkside please. I know they're very ugly. I know they don't look good. But for us low-income people... I was laid off in 2008. I had two choices. I had to go to the public services or go back to my country. I told the Landlord, 'I do not have anything to pay. Could you help me with the rent?' She said, 'You stay until you get something in hand to pay me.'”
At the same public meeting, people speaking on behalf of the Village were quick to say that no plans are in place to get rid of Parkside; That this is a long-range plan that has the best interest of the community in mind; And that they are aware of the value this particular community brings.
Even so, these same spokespeople seemed to contradict themselves when Staci Hulseberg, the Village's Planning and Development Director, constantly spoke of how the area in the proposed TIF district (which includes Parkside), should be “upgraded as an attractive and convenient mixed-use corridor” and it's “appearance should be improved as it is the 'front door' to the village and several neighborhoods.”
It seems that such things cannot co-exist. If the Village decides to “improve” Parkside, how can they do so without expecting the rent there to increase, thereby pushing these refugees out of one of the few places they can afford not just in Glen Ellyn, but in DuPage County?
As Emily Gray, Executive Director of World Relief DuPage and Aurora said at the Public Meeting after sharing how difficult it is to find homes for resettled refugees, “If this goes away, our communities need us to be building more affordable housing, not less. We need places like a better Parkside.”
Once again, those representing the Village at this meeting reiterated their commitment to this as well, citing the fact that while the “Affordable housing planning and appeal act (2004) requires 10% of all housing to be affordable, in Glen Ellyn, approximately 20.4% of all occupied units are considered affordable”.
As someone who recently bought a home in Glen Ellyn, I truly wanted to laugh out loud at the audacity of this statement. It seems to me that while this may technically be true according to state requirements, there is no way that this is true in terms of providing affordable houses to the least of these, to the poor and the vulnerable in our community.
In fact, when someone asked for clarification as to what affordable housing meant, Hulseberg was only able to reiterate that Glen Ellyn exceeds the state requirement, without giving any specific numbers as to what that means in terms of rent or payments.
Reacting to this, a 10-month resident of Parkside said, “If we take those claims seriously, then we need to also offer serious guarantees. Not just affordable housing that meets state requirements, but that meets life requirements. We need to be wary of the warnings that subject area experts are giving us. If we don't do that , we're showing we're willing to talk about the value, but we're not willing to take it seriously.”
In nearly two hours of hearing from a multitude of people at the public meeting about the proposed TIF District, only one gentleman spoke in favor of the plan; All others articulated their concern for Parkside and for what it's loss (and therefore, the loss of the diverse residents who live there) might mean for our community.
The most poignant moment of the night, however, came at it's end, when a young resident of Parkside, Jessica, (approximately 7 years old), stood up and said, “I love Parkside and I don't want it to be taken down.” She then directed her question to the Village spokespeople, “If you take Parkside down, will you give us a home?”
As soon as her question came, my tears fell.
I cried for the fact that this little girl might lose the only home she's ever known as a result of this proposed TIF district.
I also cried for what our community would lose if we allow this to happen.
My prayer is that as this proposal is discussed in the upcoming days and weeks, we will not lose sight that despite it's dilapidated appearance, Parkside apartments is very much home to it's residents, many of whom are refugees who have been unable to call anywhere home for much of their lives.