A Universal Income Proposal Prompts A Council Debate On Reparations For Black Chicagoans

Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card
Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card she receives monthly through a California universal income trial program. Chicago City Councilmembers, in a debate about universal income, turned the conversation toward a potential Chicago reparations program. Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card
Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card she receives monthly through a California universal income trial program. Chicago City Councilmembers, in a debate about universal income, turned the conversation toward a potential Chicago reparations program. Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

A Universal Income Proposal Prompts A Council Debate On Reparations For Black Chicagoans

Chicago aldermen approved new regulations for industrial developments, a pilot surcharge on residential demolitions in Pilsen and around The 606 elevated trail, and a resolution aimed at beginning the conversation about a city-run universal basic income pilot program.

None of those items passed unanimously, with each item receiving at least 12 votes in opposition from city council members during Wednesday’s monthly meeting.

In fact, divided roll call votes appear to be the new normal of the Chicago City Council, a body historically known for its lack of independence and rubber-stamp approval of whatever the Fifth floor puts before it. At one point, City Clerk Anna Valencia, the person in charge of calling the names of all 50 aldermen and recording their votes, audibly mumbled, “Oh, another roll call vote.”

A resolution requesting the city hold a hearing on using federal coronavirus relief aid to fund a city-run guaranteed income program passed, but with more opposition than any other item on the agenda.

Sponsored by Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, the resolution requested a hearing on the feasibility of implementing a program where the city would dole out checks to working families struggling to make ends meet.

Villegas already used his position as chairman of the Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development to hold the hearing earlier this month. The council has long debated the possibility of a universal income program, in the past creating a task force to study its feasibility.

Still, 18 aldermen voted against it after lengthy debate about the need to prioritize reparations for Black Chicagoans before issuing any kind of cash-based program.

Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, was particularly critical of the proposal, calling it a “slap in the face” to the Chicago-area descendants of slaves.

“Let me just say to you,” Ervin said during the debate, “until we deal with the issue of reparations in the city of Chicago, there’s no way in hell we can support direct payments to anybody other than the American descendants of slaves in the city of Chicago.”

A recently created Subcommittee on Reparations held its inaugural meeting earlier this month, although things didn’t go as planned. Most of the public commenters testified on an unrelated issue — puppy mills.

Others opposed to a Chicago-based income system suggested this is a program better fit for the federal government — not the city.

Evanston’s city council voted Monday to make good on its long-promised reparations program, voting to distribute $10 million over the next decade to eligible Black households.

Pilsen demolition surcharge

Aldermen passed with 37 votes of support a new pilot program that will tack on an additional surcharge on demolitions of multi-family residential units around The 606 elevated trail and in Pilsen.

The sponsors argued the fee is needed to help slow down what’s becoming an affordable housing shortage in these rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

“We know that a lot of these developers can turn down homes and build mansions, instead of the three flats or two flats that we have in our communities,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, said, adding that this kind of development has resulted in the displacement of thousands of residents.

Twelve aldermen voted against it. Opponents questioned if the fee is legal or too little, too late. Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, voted against the surcharge, saying these neighborhoods are already too far gentrified and city council should be focusing on neighborhoods that are in the early stages of change.

New regulations for industrial development

Aldermen also advanced new rules around industrial developments aimed at creating a stricter community and city review process to avoid another General Iron-type situation. Twelve aldermen voted against it, some suggesting the new regulations aren’t enough and questioned why there wasn’t any support from environmental groups.

After the meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted the new regulations saying it will put Chicago on a “better path to cleaner air,” no matter what ZIP code.

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow @claudiamorell