Housing Advocate In Vote-Buying Probe Pushes Affordable Housing Overhaul
A Chicago housing advocate who’s been caught up in an ongoing state investigation into alleged vote-buying in a 2019 aldermanic race appeared at City Hall Wednesday to push for a major overhaul of the city’s affordable housing rules.
Chicago Housing Initiative Executive Director Leah Levinger testified before a City Council committee hearing on the proposed ordinance she helped craft, which is being sponsored by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward.
In February, WBEZ reported that the Illinois Attorney General’s Office was investigating allegations of vote-buying involving to Levinger’s group and Sigcho-Lopez’s campaign.
As of late Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said that investigation is still ongoing. Both Levinger and the alderman say they’ve done nothing wrong, and no one has been charged.
The probe stems from a complaint during the February 2019 municipal election, when Sigcho-Lopez was one of five candidates vying to replace powerful Ald. Danny Solis, who retired after more than two decades in office and was later outed as a mole for federal investigators.
Levinger’s group handed out gift cards to residents at the Barbara Jean Wright Court Apartments, a housing complex that straddles the 11th and 25th Wards.
Some voters at the complex said they were promised $20 gift cards from Levinger’s group in exchange for supporting Sigcho-Lopez. The alderman’s campaign denied being involved. Levinger acknowledged her group offered the gift cards, but says it was only a way to encourage voter turnout and no conditions were attached.
Flyers posted in the complex promised $20 visa gift cards to any resident who showed proof of having voted, said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
After Wednesday’s City Council committee meeting concluded, Levinger told WBEZ she hadn’t been contacted in months about the investigation.
“There is nothing to that allegation, it was a community trying to raise voter turnout levels in general,” Levinger said.
Told later Wednesday that the probe is ongoing, Levinger wrote in a text message: “The idea that a low income tenant community fighting for their survival doing a non partisan voter participation drive to empower themselves as a constituency is somehow a conflict of interest, as it relates to an affordable housing ordinance, is a ludicrous charge and completely offensive.”
Levinger also said Wednesday that staff at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners had told the complex’s tenant council that “nothing inappropriate was going on” regarding the gift cards. Allen, with the city’s elections board, had previously told WBEZ that he had contacted Levinger and explained that it is illegal to offer people money or other compensation in exchange for voting.
A spokeswoman for Sigcho-Lopez on Wednesday said he has never been contacted by investigators regarding the allegations.
The alderman said the 25th Ward race was filled with “a lot of private interests, big developers and corporations that were trying to buy the election.”
“I am not concerned about working with advocates that I have been working with for ten years,” he said. “I think that in the eleventh hour, just to see these private interests try to accuse us of corruption...I think that we know who exactly was the corrupt alderman for 23 years.”
“Development For All” ordinance
The affordable requirements ordinance has long been a controversial issue in Chicago. But a development boon in certain neighborhoods has put pressure on City Hall to strengthen a law that advocates say has done nothing to stem housing segregation in Chicago.
Many City Council newcomers were elected on the issue of housing affordability, including the ordinance's lead sponsor, Sigcho-Lopez.
Ready with data and a PowerPoint presentation explaining the ordinance, Levinger fielded most of the questions aldermen had on the proposal.
The Lightfoot administration has put a task force together to find solutions to the city's affordable housing shortage, but housing advocates say it's ridiculous that only one member is an ARO recipient. Levinger applied to be a member but was rejected.
The ARO mandates that new developments in the city include a certain number of affordable units. But developers can pay the city a fee to get around those requirements. Housing advocates say that option allows housing segregation to continue.
The Chicago City Council created the ARO in 2007, just before the housing crisis. The 2015 revision strengthened portions of the code, like creating a sliding scale of fees based on the income level of the surrounding neighborhood. But it still gave developers the option to pay a fee for every affordable unit not included.
That money is bundled into an affordable housing trust fund that's supposed to cover the cost of creating or rehabilitating affordable housing.
The new so-called “Development for All” ordinance would eliminate that pay-out option for developers. “We don’t want any opt-outs, we don’t want any in-lieu fees,” said Ald. Andre Vazquez, 40th Ward.
The ordinance would also force developers to set aside larger units at affordable rates. Most affordable units created under the ARO have been studios or one-bedroom units.
Mike Mini, with the Chicagoland Apartment Association, suggested a resolution in support of similar action at the state level would be a better use of the City Council’s time. He argued adopting strict affordable housing rules limits developers’ ability to finance projects.
It’s better to have some housing built than none at all, he said, adding that the city has already lost out on potential developments after the last revision.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.