Why Chicago’s South Side embodies the city’s real estate potential

by Timothy Inklebarger

There’s a lot to be thankful for in Chicago real estate, but Don Robinson, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Realty who primarily works on the South Side, says potential may be the city’s most enduring quality.

Robinson moved to Woodlawn from Auburn Gresham about four years ago, when four-bedroom homes ran between $200,000 and $300,000. Woodlawn’s point of entry these days is $500,000 for a single-family home. “If we would have acted a year later, we would have been priced out,” Robinson said. “That’s how quickly things were changing.”

That steep jump in value was driven by the decision to build the Obama Presidential Center on the east side of Woodlawn, plans for the construction of a Tiger Woods-designed public golf course in South Shore and efforts by the University of Chicago to attract residents, such as its program providing down payment grants of up to $20,000 for faculty and staff to relocate there.

The area’s connection to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 is also a big draw because the fair established substantial park space and transit lines for the surrounding communities, Robinson said. “You have Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance connecting with Jackson Park, and that connects with the Museum of Science and Industry campus,” he said. “With all of that are the boat harbors — it really presents a magical place within the city.”

Robinson said about 60% of Chicago’s landmass is on the South Side, but that part of the city only accounts for 40% of the population. That’s a lot of space for mispriced properties, according to Robinson. “In real estate, the way to create any type of gains or market appreciation is through arbitrage; find the property that is not properly valued,” he explained. Compared to its coastal counterparts in New York and California, good deals are easier to find. “Chicago offers investment opportunities that may not be present in other major markets.”

In terms of neighborhood hot spots, Robinson said Kenwood, Woodlawn and South Shore will experience the biggest gains in the coming years. Douglas, Washington Park, Oakland and Bronzeville are also areas to keep an eye on, he said.

The increasing value of residential real estate on the South Side is driven in part by the geography of the neighborhoods and how they’re situated around amenities such as mass transportation and the lake, according to Robinson. “You’ve got shorter commute times,” he said. “The infrastructure [for many South Side neighborhoods] is for high density but the population is far off from the peaks of the 1960s and 1970s.”

He said that right now, anything north of 95th Street has a good chance of increasing in value over time, but properties north of 71st Street are the most desirable because of the transit options. “Chicago is not different from other major cities where the inner city is being revitalized,” Robinson said. “There’s more desire to be close to services and the major attractions of the cities. This is just a way that cities are developed. I think there’s going to be more desire to look at neighborhoods on the South Side that had not been considered before mainly for economic reasons.”

Even with the appreciation that’s already happened in the last few years, neighborhoods like Kenwood are still poised for significant growth, according to Robinson, who described the neighborhood as full of estates that were originally built for affluent Chicago business people. “The fact that you can buy a mansion within walking distance of the lake for under $2 million is just insane,” he said.

The growing interest in South Side properties, and those in economically depressed neighborhoods, follows a trend taking place across the country, Robinson said, where younger people who grew up in the suburbs are now wanting to live in the city. “These [neighborhoods] are affordable now, and they never should have been,” Robinson said. “Whatever those race relations were 50 years ago, their children don’t have the same perspective from the population that said, ‘I don’t want to live in the city; I don’t want to be integrated.’”

Robinson noted that economics have also driven the return to cities. “We don’t have the discretionary income we did even 10 years ago; people are looking for ways to manage their budget — housing is a way to do that,” he said, noting that city dwellers can save money just by living in the city through the use of public transportation.

Before considering moving to a neighborhood, though, Robinson encouraged buyers to learn as much as they can about the history of the area. “It will give you the understanding of what to expect from living there and the potential of the neighborhood going forward,” he said, recommending Arcadia Publishing’s book series on Chicago neighborhoods as a good start.

Robinson said helping people buy in areas where values are on the rise is fulfilling, and one of the elements he likes most about working on the South Side. “I’m confident that every transaction I’ve done, I’ve put money in someone’s pocket,” he said.

He advises clients looking for a home or an investment to remember that it’s important to be flexible and strike while the iron’s hot. “Identify where you want to be, and when you figure out where you want to be, go get it. Don’t think everything has to be a white picket fence and perfect,” he said.

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  • Brian J Berg says:

    POAH’s redevelopment of Grove Parc Plaza and the “South Cottage Grove Corridor,” starting in 2008, now with about half a dozen new mixed-income and affordable rental residential buildings, plus MetroSqauash, Woodlawn Resource Center, the new Jewel-Osco and their Renew Woodlawn program have done more for ensuring its affordability and making the neighborhood a destination where more people are choosing to go to live and to work.

  • Chance says:

    Kenwood homes sit on the market a while and there is an abundance of supply. South Shore has great potential. But has many low income renters. That will have to change. What’s poised for most growth is Bronzeville. Bronzeville vacant lots are being filled with homes and higher income people are moving in.

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