Just a week after he was elected as one of twelve new members to Chicago’s city council, Michael Rodriguez and six other progressive alderpersons-elect blocked traffic outside City Hall to protest a vote.
The outgoing city council was voting on $1.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies—specifically tax increment financing, or TIFs—for two upscale housing developments, Lincoln Yards and The 78—mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “parting gift” to the city. TIFs effectively subsidize development by refunding or diverting a portion of a company’s taxes to help finance a project.
“TIFs were created to invest in blighted communities,” says Rodriguez, who represents a working-class community on the city’s southwest side with an overwhelmingly Mexican and immigrant population. “It’s within the statute. Lincoln Yards, particularly, is not in a blighted community by any stretch of common sense.”
Pressure to act within the first 100 days of the May 20 inauguration of mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, and the new city council, is growing. The freshmen class of alderpersons, which includes five democratic socialists, are taking a lead on the city’s escalating housing crisis.
Every night, 80,000 Chicagoans sleep on streets, in subway cars, shelters, or double-up with family or friends. Every day, 156 people move out of Chicago, many of whom are African American, looking for safer communities, better jobs, and affordable housing. The demand for affordable housing here outstrips the supply by some 120,000 units, and the gap is growing.
Every night, 80,000 Chicagoans sleep on streets, in subway cars, shelters, or double-up with family or friends.
A recent report from the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University could be summarized with: the rents are too damn high, affordable apartments are too damn scarce, neighborhoods are too damn segregated and neglected. The Chicago area has actually lost population for the last four years, and the report suggests that part of the reason is a lack of affordable housing, especially in black and Latino communities.
“This loss of population is significant, and the group most affected is the African American community,” Charlton Hamer, senior vice president of The Habitat Co.’s affordable housing unit, told Bisnow Chicago. “If you take a ride through the West Side or South Side, the losses are quite evident.”
“I couldn’t support more public resources—substantial public resources—going to Lincoln Park,” Rodriguez tells me in a phone interview after the protest, “while the communities of North Lawndale, Little Village and Vittum Park continue to see a lack of investment.”
My twenty-three-year-old daughter called me one recent evening from the El—the elevated subway that snakes throughout our city. She was on her way home from her part-time, $14-an-hour job that she relies on to pay her portion of the $1500 rent for the small apartment she shares with three roommates.
“Mom, I met a woman on the train,” she told me. “She needs a place to sleep tonight. I’m going home to get her $20 and a blanket. I told her I’d get some shelter numbers. It sounds like she may be in a violent relationship. Do you have any suggestions where we can call?”
I called my friend who works in a city office that finds emergency shelter for people. There was nothing she could do that night, she said, but offered her personal attention if the person came by the next day. The hotline numbers my daughter had already called were the same ones my friend suggested we try.
Situations like this one are commonplace in Chicago. During his tenure as mayor since 2011, Emanuel has presided over a general deterioration of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Gun violence and crime are an epidemic. He closed a record number of public schools—fifty—while showering corporate high-end housing developers with tax increment financing, earning him the nickname “Mayor 1%.”
Emanuel focused his attention on developing the city’s downtown and near North Side areas, leaving neighborhoods especially on the South and West sides to fend for themselves.
Previously, Chicago had already destroyed public housing developments—most notoriously Cabrini Green in 2011—or turned them into “mixed-income” complexes, forcing many low-income and African American residents out of the city or onto the Chicago Housing Authority’s historically unreliable voucher program. In a city like Chicago, with its long history and stubborn practice of racial segregation and discrimination, the voucher program is rampant with both.
An analysis by Chicago public radio station WBEZ shows that of the city’s 41,000 voucher holders, the vast majority are living in predominantly economically-distressed black communities. It found that “15 communities in Chicago each have 1,000 or more vouchers—13 of them are majority black, none are majority white.”
During Chicago’s recent mayoral and city council elections, voters peppered candidates with questions about affordable housing. With the $1.6 billion tax giveaway vote, it was the first issue the history-making Lightfoot, the first African American woman and first lesbian to be elected mayor of Chicago, had to confront even before her inauguration.
Despite the mass protest and a Lightfoot-requested delay in the vote, Emanuel and the lame duck city council plowed ahead with approving the funds for the developers.
Lightfoot and thirty of the incoming members of the City Council support a number of measures aimed at the housing problem, including a graduated real estate transfer tax, which would lower taxes on typical home sales but raise the taxes on properties over $1 million. This would generate an estimated $150 million for affordable housing and related services. The plan is to put the graduated real estate tax change to the voters via referendum.
Housing groups and civic organizations including Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Openlands, and Metropolitan Planning Council are also advocating for a graduated real estate transfer tax. They’re also pushing for rent control, neighborhood-specific housing projects, and amending the Affordable Requirements Ordinance to increase substantially the number of affordable units developers must build in or near their market-rate buildings.
“We’ve got to do a better job as a city providing affordable housing,” Rodriguez says. “Working-class people are being priced out of our city.”
Speaking about his priorities for when he takes office, Rodriguez says, “All these communities share in common recent losses in population,” and “rents that are skyrocketing.” He supports lifting the state-imposed ban on rent control and government investments in public housing, “at all levels of government—federal, county, state and city,” particularly on the south and west sides of Chicago.
“The previous administration had a focus on downtown and the affluent,” says Rodriguez. “While both of those groups are important constituencies in our city, we have to equally value working-class communities who are getting a bum deal in our current tax structure.”