By Katie Vloet
Aja Bonner, M.U.P. ’14, was required to do an internship when she was an undergraduate student studying human development and social policy at Northwestern University. That’s what led Bonner to her first visit to the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing development in nearby Chicago’s Gold Coast community. She didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience laid the groundwork for her current career.
It was 2003, and demolition had begun at Cabrini-Green. Bonner interned in a health clinic that hosted a youth drop-in program in a red brick building that had no lighting just a stone’s throw from the iconic John Hancock skyscraper. She was terrified to use the elevator. “It was eye-opening. I’d never experienced something like that,” says Bonner. “Seeing the extreme contrast between the concentrated wealth in the surrounding Gold Coast with the abject poverty at Cabrini was jarring and informed my ideas about how important urban planning is.”
Today, following a decidedly indirect path, Bonner has found her way back to Chicago. As a financial planning analyst for the Chicago Department of Housing, she is charged with ensuring that quality affordable housing is available in “choice neighborhoods of opportunity” and is a catalyst for investment in underserved communities. She evaluates proposals for low-income housing tax credits and is responsible for monitoring the financial health of multifamily housing subsidized by the department, including properties replacing Cabrini-Green.
“As an undergrad, I had no concept of the policies governing public housing and how it was shifting to affordable housing, or that there was even such a distinction,” Bonner says. “The proposals that are being put forth now are worlds apart” from the Cabrini-Green she knew in 2003, and likely will include housing for a range of incomes. “One of the trickier parts of my job is identifying and understanding all of the federal and local regulatory requirements and conditions attached to a given development. But the cool thing is that my job touches on many disciplines: finance, policy, law, construction, design, and of course, politics,” she adds.
Following graduation from Northwestern, Bonner worked for several years in security and emergency preparedness, starting with three years at the City of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and another four at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She knew, however, that her long-term career interests lay elsewhere. In 2012, she began as a student in the Master of Urban Planning program at Taubman College. Her real estate development and economic development courses in particular “were important cornerstones that helped launch me as an urban planner,” Bonner says.
In 2014, she won a U-M MLK Spirit Leadership Award for organizing a symposium and student recruitment campaign aimed at increasing people of color in urban planning. Her capstone study of workforce and industrial development in Detroit, called “Forging a Future,” was named the Michigan Planning Association’s Student Project of the Year in 2015.
Upon graduating, Bonner worked as a program officer at the Hudson-Webber Foundation, a private foundation that commits millions in annual giving to spark economic development and quality-of-life improvements in Detroit. During her two years at the foundation, she developed and implemented an evaluation research study for a $40 million, seven-year investment strategy in the city.
“We have a real opportunity to challenge the status quo for how we’ve been housing people, and maybe come up with ways to build community in the process.”
— Aja Bonner, M.U.P. ’14
The challenges Detroit is facing provided Bonner with a basis for better understanding Chicago, where she moved in 2017. “It’s important to take heed to the lessons of Detroit, and what happens when you lose population and lose employers,” she says. “Chicago has done a good job of maintaining a diverse economy, but it’s always important to consider what to do when a city is not in growth mode.”
The economics of Chicago’s growth, as well as the city’s complicated history with issues of race and disinvestment, have created a landscape in which some neighborhoods have thrived while others have struggled. “Chicago, like many other big cities, is facing an affordable housing crisis,” she says. “Wages are just not keeping pace with the increases in rent, and the number of units of affordable housing we’re able to finance are far exceeded by demand. Many people are going unhoused as a result. Federal support is shrinking, so we are increasingly relying on corporate funds to help finance development deals.”
Bonner sees her position on a four-person team in the Department of Housing, which she began in June 2019, as an opportunity to level some of the historic disparities. “We have a real opportunity to challenge the status quo for how we’ve been housing people, and maybe come up with ways to build community in the process,” she says.
“I hope, first and foremost, that our work leads to more people being housed in quality housing. I work with some really bright people who are experts in this work, and it’s exciting to think about what we can do together.”