A West Woodlawn Native Wants to Right Redlining Wrongs with Some Greenlining

Lamell McMorris directing construction people
Lamell McMorris, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate developer and civil rights activist

To fight the generations-spanning, discriminatory housing practice known as redlining with nine homes in a pocket of Chicago’s South Side might seem, at first, like David going up against Goliath.

But Lamell McMorris has big plans for several lots in the West Woodlawn neighborhood, which he sees as one step toward building up the neighborhood where he grew up.

McMorris, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate developer and civil rights activist, has formed a new property redevelopment firm meant to right the wrongs of redlining, in partnership with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

The firm, Greenlining Realty USA, broke ground in late June on Woodlawn Pointe, a mix of new and rehabbed residential properties in the West Woodlawn area including seven new-construction and two renovated homes in a mix of single- and multi-family buildings.

McMorris said he hopes the affordable housing Woodlawn Pointe provides will kick-start the investment his community needs to flourish and to reverse the impact that redlining left in its wake.

“Ours is not necessarily a challenge of gentrification; ours is reverse migration. I’ve got people moving out and I’m trying to get people to move back,” McMorris said.

McMorris’ endeavor comes at a time of increased awareness of redlining, a systemic practice where Black people were denied the ability to invest in property from 1933-1968. Real estate agents created color-coded maps of cities, where areas colored green were safest and red were riskiest.

The ongoing policy was a creation of governmental agencies like the Federal Housing Authority, working in conjunction with banks, appraisers and the real estate sector to deny mortgages or housing loans to those in the Black community.

Redlining enforced segregation and created a wealth gap that Blacks have yet to rebound from (and area organizations continue to propose solutions for), while whites could build wealth through equity in homes.

To McMorris, people are investing in parts of Woodlawn, but not his neighborhood on its west side. But its proximity to the lake, Hyde Park, the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive make it ripe for growth.

There’s history there, and big plans for the future. “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry based the drama on her family’s experience in its Washington Park subdivision. Gwendolyn Brooks, Joe Louis and Hugh Hefner have called Woodlawn home, and the Obama Presidential Center is set to be built on Woodlawn’s portion of Jackson Park.

“Why would you not invest in West Woodlawn?” McMorris said.

Work on Woodlawn Pointe has already begun on Evans Avenue — seven lots acquired through the Cook County Land Bank Authority, an independent agency of Cook County that acquires vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties and sells them at below-market rates. Buyers must be community-based developers who then rehab the properties and sell them to homeowners.

The new-construction homes should be done by fall, McMorris said. But that — along with a gut rehab of his childhood home at 742 E. Marquette Road — is just the start; he hopes to see a revitalized community within the decade.

For the Land Bank, this is the first project under its umbrella to involve multiple nearby homes being built or rehabbed at once, said Executive Director Rob Rose. Infill development — an urban renewal strategy focused on transforming vacant lots or other unused property — such as Woodlawn Pointe is exactly what the Land Bank hopes to promote.

“Infill development is something that is a real economic boost, because you’re building off the strength of a neighborhood,” Rose said. “That southwest quadrant of Woodlawn is ripe for this kind of development, and it provides for opportunity all the way around. So it’s something that we’re excited to be a part of.”

While federal regulations are supposed to ensure housing discrimination doesn’t exist, modern forms of redlining still reverberate through Chicago’s South and West sides. A recent WBEZ/City Bureau study found that from 2012 to 2018, 68.1% of money loaned for housing purchases in Chicago went to majority-white neighborhoods, while 8.1% went to majority-Black neighborhoods and 8.7% went to majority-Latino neighborhoods.

Homeowners in redlined neighborhoods in Chicago lost an average of $232,000 in home equity compared to those in greenlined neighborhoods over the past four decades, according to a June report from real estate brokerage Redfin. The median home equity for those in the “best” neighborhoods was $462,000. That’s a 101% difference in home equity between homes deemed “hazardous” and those deemed to be in the “best” neighborhoods.

The historic segregation still impacts the city’s neighborhoods, said Taylor Marr, Redfin’s lead economist. Even now, Black homeowners, the report found, are nearly five times more likely to own in previously redlined neighborhoods.

“In Chicago, in particular between 1960 and 2010, not a single neighborhood went from majority black to white,” he said. “Those neighborhood boundaries that were explicitly designed back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s by race and segregated, essentially didn’t change at all.”

As for what can be done to right those wrongs, Marr said there has been a shift in awareness over the past five years and more effort to take action. But real impact, he noted, takes time.

“What we’re seeing more and more is that these things are very stable over time,” he said. “And it takes a significant group of efforts to really change the effects of the discrimination or even how cities are so segregated.”

Rose considers Woodlawn Pointe a way toward building neighborhood wealth in Woodlawn. For two- or three-flats being built, buyers could engage in what some call “house hacking” — living in one apartment while renting out the others to cover the cost of the building’s mortgage with a passive income.

“It’s a great way to turn real estate from a liability to an asset,” Rose said.

McMorris said he’s trying to put forth a blueprint for equity with his South Side project, creating strategies and opportunities for his neighbors who have historically been unable to participate in their environment as equity partners.

But it’s a constant battle, he said. In some cases, his team has to fight to show his West Woodlawn properties deserve the same high-quality finishes found in properties on the pricey North Shore.

“There shouldn’t be two sets of rules, two different standards — there should be one standard of good, quality housing,” McMorris said. “I’m attempting to do real work that says quality housing, quality development deserves to live, can live and is still profitable in this place that was once dismissed and disinvested in.”

It can feel like an uphill battle, but McMorris said he has a point to prove.

“I just have to do it and show people that it can be done and that my neighborhood deserves good housing product and inventory,” he said.

And he wants to make sure that when the developers do come knocking, they do it with intention.

“Anyone can come in my neighborhood and flip houses,” McMorris said, “but if you’re really trying to do a true neighborhood transformation, it takes an amount of leaning in that will lead to the outcome that is (the) real community that was around when I was a kid — livable, walkable and playable.”

(Article written by Darcel Rocket)