Chicago’s New Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara Seeks Less Segregation | WBEZ
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Chicago’s New Housing Commissioner Seeks More Affordable Housing, Less Segregation

Marisa Novara has been tapped to lead the reinstated Chicago Housing Department with a vision to reduce residential segregation and expand affordable housing in neighborhoods that have excluded working families.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s team announced Novara’s appointment Tuesday, which needs City Council approval.

“I’ve been working for more than 15 years in community-based affordable housing development, housing policy, racial equity. And I’ve been working outside of government and really learning and researching and writing a lot on how government can do things different and better,” Novara said.

She once worked for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation in rental and for-sale housing in North Lawndale. Novara is currently part of the Lightfoot transition team and on leave from the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), where she directed the “Cost of Segregation” project that revealed the billions of dollars the region loses annually because of entrenched housing segregation. A year ago, in the second phase of that project, MPC released a set of recommendations meant to serve as a roadmap to equity and prosperity for the region.

“There are many parts of the roadmap that are part of the housing agenda of this administration; that’s part of what makes it an exciting opportunity to me,” Novara said.

Here are two of the housing recommendations from a 2018 Metropolitan Planning Council report co-authored by Chicago’s new housing commissioner, Marisa Novara:

Increase subsidies for housing vouchers, commonly known as Section 8

Tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans use vouchers to rent in the private market. Vouchers are clustered in segregated South and West Side neighborhoods because the money doled out from the public housing authority only goes so far. MPC finds if those rent subsidies are increased, more units will be available in pricier neighborhoods like North Center, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Near North Side, West Town, Near West Side, the Loop and Near South Side.

Lessen local control over affordable housing

Aldermanic prerogative means each alderman has control over the land use and zoning decisions in their own ward. MPC recommends that when a residential development with at least 10% affordability is proposed for a ward with less than 10% affordable housing, that development can’t be rejected or delayed by the alderman alone.

It’s been more than a decade since the city had a stand-alone housing department. Mayor Richard M. Daley folded it into other departments as did Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In his 2019 city budget, Emanuel brought back the housing department as a separate department.

In December, the city council passed Emanuel’s five-year housing plan, which calls for $1.4 billion in city support for 40,000 residential units citywide. The plan also includes efforts to invest in affordable rental housing, expand homeownership and combat gentrification.

Novara said it’s a good plan that can be added to over time, and she wants to take on racial equity impact assessments. That’s a system municipalities around the country are using that requires those in charge to put race at the center of decisions on how government works -- in this case how public dollars are spent in housing.

The city housing department is a sister agency to the Chicago Housing Authority.

“For me, developments that combine CHA resources with city resources are able to truly meet the needs of the full range of low-income residents in the city. So it’s a crucial partnership,” Novara said.

She said producing affordable housing is a crucial part of the department but can’t be all that’s done.

“Housing is a platform to all of the non-housing parts of our lives. When we place affordable housing near transit like O’Hare, that’s workforce development. When we create low-cost homeownership in black and brown communities, that’s shrinking the racial wealth gap,” Novara said.

 is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on on Twitter @NatalieYMoore.

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