City Council's Affordable Housing Fight

February 21, 2007

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There are two proposals in the City Council that would make developers build more affordable housing.

The first has been around for years. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle says she introduced it because she doesn't want working people to get pushed out of Chicago.

TAPE: The strength of cities is always they're diversity, historically. Racially, economically. That's what makes cities interesting and suburbs boring.

Preckwinckle is an imposing woman—6 feet tall, broad shoulders, two degrees from the University of Chicago. She has the sensible shoes and brusque manner of a strict school teacher. Her ordinance would basically require developers who are building 10 or more units to make 15 percent of the units affordable.

TAPE: You know, I think the development community has done very well in Chicago over the past decade, and they can well afford to help the city as a whole out in this way. They're the principal beneficiaries of the residential development, they should be the principal actors stepping up to the plate and helping us deal with our affordable housing crisis.

But the ordinance got stuck. 24 aldermen signed on—just short of a majority. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley never liked it. He says it would quash development.

Brian Bernardoni with the Chicago Association of Realtors agrees. He says other stakeholders—like unions—need to help developers solve the problem.

TAPE: You know I think there's a huge presumption that developers are across the board making tons of money. Well their money fluctuates just like anyone else. Labor costs, material costs are a big part of it.

Then last fall, with elections coming, Daley announced a different version of developer-created affordable housing. It wouldn't be applied across the board.

TAPE: A lot of government believe in mandating everything. They want to mandate this, mandate that, mandate that. And it doesn't work. (Cause they just move somewhere else.)

Daley's requirements would kick in only when developers need/ed help from the city, for example a zoning change. And the percentage of affordable units would go down from 15 to 10 percent.

TAPE: We should be able to sit down, both with the private sector, which we always do, and the public sector, and housing advocates, and basically come out with good compromises that basically expand affordability, and bringing new financial programs to the table constantly. And that's what I believe in.

TAPE: Mayor Daley wants to continue an environment in Chicago that's attractive to developers,

John Pelissero is a professor of political science at Loyola University.

TAPE: where developers can invest in the city, and developers can make money, which helps to protect and enhance the tax base in Chicago that's important to the mayor. At the same time, he has to find a way in which developers will find a way to not turn their back on less attractive building and housing needs that exist in the city.

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle says she found out about Daley's proposal after his press conference.

TAPE: I thought it was more of their efforts to sort of change things around the margins so they wouldn't have to support the ordinance that was already in committee.

Which was broader, it would apply to all developments of 10 units or more.

TAPE: We thought it was a big step in the right direction.

Tom Walsh is with the Balanced Development Coalition, a group made up of community organizations. He says they were pleased that they mayor was recognizing the problem…but troubled that he wasn't doing enough.

The group had been a force behind Preckwinkle's proposed ordinance, and it started lobbying aldermen to put more teeth into the mayor's plan. They asked aldermen to up the percentage of affordable units to 15 percent in some cases, 20 percent in others. They also called for an amendment that would reserve some of the for-sale housing for lower income people—because Daley's version would be for people making median income or less.

TAPE: The vast number of households in the city of Chicago will not be able to afford the quote unquote affordable units created by the mayor's new ordinance. So who's this ordinance for?

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle says it was for Daley himself. She accuses him of announcing the plan because he was facing a significant challenge from US Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. Then Jackson and US Representative Luis Gutierrez decided NOT to enter the mayoral race. Preckwinkle says she still hoped Daley would move forward with his proposal.

TAPE: I tried to say to the administration is that it would be helpful to their folks if something on affordable housing was passed in advance of the election. So that people could say I support affordable housing, and I supported the most recent ordinance that was introduced to city council. But since the mayor doesn't need the ordinance for his own election, he's got nominal opposition, there's no incentive for him to move forward on it.

TAPE: One thing I gotta say about this mayor, he does not drag his feet. And when he makes a commitment, he keeps his commitments.

Alderman Ray Suarez chairs the City Council Housing Committee.

TAPE: You know people will go out there and jump up and down, but this mayor, under his programs, have accomplished more for housing.

Last November, Suarez told Chicago Public Radio that he would hold hearings on Daley's proposal in December or January. Now he says he hasn't called them because city departments are still hammering out details. He wouldn't give specific dates, but he says he expects aldermen to pass the mayor's proposal before the summer.