This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune on April 16, 2018.
John Griffin knew he wasn’t safe. Not in South Holland. Not in 1967.
As the then-20-year-old, who is black, navigated his car though the southwest suburb, folks stared. They were wary, he said, wondering what on earth he was doing in the majority-white neighborhood.
Here’s what: He was looking for a home.
“I drove around South Holland and I decided that I wasn’t going to put my family through that,” Griffin, now 72, said. “The hostility was there. You knew that you were going to have a problem.”
His instinct wasn’t wrong. One of his co-workers, also black, did go on to buy a house there.
“They burnt his house down,” Griffin said.
It’s no secret that Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the nation, has an ugly history of housing discrimination. Before the federal Fair Housing Act passed in April 1968 — 50 years ago — people of color were frequently, and flagrantly, prohibited from renting, buying or financing homes in areas where the population was mostly white.
Right before the act’s passage, some black Chicagoans found homes, and refuge, in a housing cooperative on the city’s South Side. Griffin moved into London Towne Houses Cooperative, in the Pullman community area, in 1967.
JoAnn Kenner, 73, current president of London Towne Houses, also has lived in the community since ’67. In the years before fair housing laws, the mentality around integrated communities, Kenner said, was as in the play “A Raisin in the Sun” — “Even if you were able to get a mortgage” and someone would sell you a house, if you were nonwhite, “the neighborhood was not going to be welcoming.”
London was “like a breath of fresh air, it was like living in the suburbs,” she said. “Like a little bedroom community.” This was a tremendous source of pride for residents, Kenner said, “people were begging to get in.”
The Fair Housing Act, which passed into law April 11, 1968, exactly one week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, has over the last half century been challenged and amended. The federal act now bans housing discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, familial status and disability. And while some experts say that the law and its enforcement aren’t perfect, black Americans like Griffin and Kenner have legal protections that were absent before April 1968.
But neither Griffin nor Kenner intends to leave the cooperative they’ve long called home. They were welcomed into London before the law said they had to be considered, and over the last 50 years of fair housing progress, they have seen little reason to leave.
Co-ops: Communities with a purpose
Co-ops hold a unique place in the history of combating housing discrimination and, for that matter, in the history of the United States too. According to professor Hilary Silver, chair of the department of sociology at George Washington University, the history of American housing cooperatives is rooted in the labor movement.
“It was kind of a semisocialist movement,” Silver said. “The idea was, let’s cooperate and we’ll cut out the landlord, who was living off of our rents. It was like quasi-ownership. It was like creating a workers’ republic, almost. Let’s cut out the capitalists.”
This initial American push for housing co-ops was centered in New York in the 1920s, Silver said. But Chicago’s history with co-ops dates back just as far, according to a landmark 2004 report by Chicago Mutual Housing Network and University of Illinois at Chicago.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s, when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development developed programs that helped subsidize low-income housing, that co-ops in Chicago really took off. According to that 2004 report, “Developments funded through these HUD programs also provided an effective mechanism to address the crisis in African-Americans accessing decent housing. … This occurred during a period when housing discrimination was still persistent.”
That report even names London Towne Houses as one example of housing that helped African-Americans, and thrived by doing so. “Demand for the initial phase of the development was so strong” at London Towne Houses, “that the co-op was completely sold out in 18 months by 1967.”
London Towne Houses, which has 803 units, welcomed its first residents around 1965 and ’66. Griffin and Kenner joined in 1967, one year before the federal Fair Housing Act was adopted. According to a 1965 Chicago Tribune article, the housing development was built by Kaufman & Broad Homes and spans 50 acres. The boundaries are Interstate 94 to the north and east, Cottage Grove to the west, and Gately Park and industrial property to the south.
So, what’s a co-op?
Cooperatives are corporations, and members own a share. The many different types of housing cooperatives can be difficult to parse — market-rate versus limited-equity versus leasing cooperatives versus group equity, et cetera. London Towne Houses falls under the umbrella of limited-equity co-ops.
“Here’s the thing that makes it limited-equity,” said Silver: “If you move out, you get to take what you put in and that’s it.”
To join a co-op, a person can purchase a share from the co-op corporation, which can buy back shares from members who leave, or from an exiting member directly, though this transfer must be approved and overseen by the co-op board. For a limited-equity co-op, buyers must meet income requirements.
A member who leaves a co-op walks away with the value of his or her share. The value of a share can appreciate slightly over time, but equity growth is far more modest than in a traditional home.
In exchange for limited equity growth, members in a co-op like London Towne Houses enjoy low monthly costs. Co-op residents — often referred to as member-owners — pay monthly fees called carrying charges. These include their share of the joint mortgage, taxes, insurance and operating costs like landscaping and trash pickup. Essentially, members divide the costs of owning and maintaining the property.
Similar to other forms of community living, like condominium associations, co-op members enjoy mowed lawns and maintenance assistance.
“We call it having a house without the hassle,” Kenner said, and members pay less than traditional homeowners would.
“We’re below market rate,” she said. “It’s attractive to people that, you know, want to save money on housing. But we don’t just want people that are moving in because it’s cheaper; we want people that have that sense of community.”
In the general population, there’s some confusion surrounding cooperatives, which means this housing option isn’t usually top of mind for those seeking a home.
“If given the choice, people are going to opt for a condo. Primarily because they know what it is,” said Charles Daas, principal at the consulting practice City Solutions and chief editor of the aforementioned 2004 report on Chicago co-ops.
By the late 1980s in Chicago, Daas said, the “condo craze” was in full swing, and cooperatives faded in the background. “Condos really eclipsed cooperatives.”
But, he noted, small cooperative developments are cropping up again “in neighborhoods that are appreciating,” such as Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, Pilsen, Wicker Park, Logan Square and the eastern side of Humboldt Park.
‘That’s the beauty of London’
The strength of the social fabric at London, residents say, is no small part of its enduring charm.
“If you were to move into London Towne, somebody’s going to come and greet you,” said Griffin, a retired cop. “We’re close enough that we know our neighbors. One of my neighbors has a key to my house in case of emergencies, I have a key to his house. I have the keys to three of the single ladies’ homes in case of an emergency.”
When Griffin moved into London Towne Houses in 1967, he joined Kenner, a former classmate.
“JoAnn and I went to high school together,” he said. “We both graduated from Hyde Park High School, and there were several of our classmates that lived in London Towne. We developed a community that did things like block parties and barbecues in the summer, and Christmas Eve we’d start on one end of our section and everybody had to have a drink or something to eat. By 6 o’clock in the morning Christmas morning, everybody was stuffed and drunk. But we had a feeling of community, and that’s the beauty of London.”
While some of the community’s original members are now deceased, “we’ve found that people that moved in back in 1966 and 1967, many of them are still here,” said Kenner, a retired teacher who is among that group.
Despite some members’ permanence, there have been shifts. According to Griffin, the co-op is below capacity, and some newer, younger residents aren’t as keen on participating in co-op meetings or launching activities.
“Initially the wave of people that came in here were young families, so there were so many things for kids at that time,” Kenner said. “Little League and scouts and stuff for teenagers, fashion shows. And seniors, they had their clubs and outings, and that kind of thing. It was really active, and that’s fallen off.”
That’s something she’s working to change.
“It’s a different era,” Griffin said.
At London, homes sport colorful shutters — some green, others blue, still others yellow — and lawns are kempt. The sprawling co-op, while quiet, isn’t sleepy.
Last July, the cooperative had its 50th anniversary celebration, a daylong outdoor fete featuring yoga classes and live entertainment. Guests ranged from residents to local police officers to the Jesse White Tumblers.
“In the summer,” Griffin said, “it’s beautiful out here.”
Before federal law forbade housing discrimination, Griffin couldn’t buy a home freely. “I feel like the Fair Housing Act was necessary to stop this blatant discrimination,” he said, adding, “I know a lot of people that have benefited from it.” Like his nephew who has “a beautiful house” in Oak Lawn. Like his friends who now reside in South Holland.
But he’s staying put.
“This co-op provided a haven and a home for a lot of people, did a lot of people good,” Griffin said, and “it still has that possibility.”
Moving in, he said, was “the best deal I ever made in my life.”
Nneka McGuire is on staff at the Chicago Tribune and Nicholas Padiak is a freelance writer.