Chicago City Council Roundup: Slowing Gentrification & Tracking LGBT Contracts

city hall
Chicago's City Hall. Bill Healy / WBEZ
city hall
Chicago's City Hall. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Chicago City Council Roundup: Slowing Gentrification & Tracking LGBT Contracts

Chicago’s City Council kicked off 2020 with a more than four hour meeting Wednesday that covered everything from legalized marijuana to gentrification.

Aldermen made a few small tweaks to cannabis zoning, helped the city acquire a handful of vacant properties near the under-construction Obama Presidential Center and passed an anti-gentrification measure targeting Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

Here’s what you missed.

Heated debate over tracking LGBT city contracts

City officials will begin collecting data on how many LGBT-owned companies have contracts with the city. The resolution sponsored by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, approved Wednesday, is a first step toward possibly including those firms in Chicago’s minority contracting requirements, which are currently geared toward women and people of color.

Though the measure would not making any changes to current minority contracting practices until the city collects data for a full year, it still set off a heated debate on the Council floor.

“I’m concerned, because the opportunity to be manipulated is very great,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward. Lopez, one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken critics, is openly gay.

“How do you have a gay test?” Lopez asked.

Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, echoed Lopez’s concerns about companies manipulating the system and using LGBT people to win contracts. He added that he doesn’t think gay white men are discriminated against, and tried to explain that current minority businesses still have to fight to win contracts.

“I’m not gay-bashing,” he said. “I have friends that are gay, I have family members that [are] gay. You know what I’m saying. I help gay people every day. I do business with gay folks. It ain’t about the gay thing it’s about the white male, the white privilege thing.”

After dozens of aldermen spoke, an emotional Lightfoot, who is both gay and black, called the entire conversation offensive and disturbing.

“We need not victimize, demonize and discriminate through our words against anyone else, because we are worried about what the size of the pie is going to be for me,” Lightfoot said. “Our children are watching. Please choose your words carefully.”

The measure passed with only one Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, voting no.

Slowing gentrification near the 606 trail

No demolition permits will be issued along the west end of the 606 trail until August, under another ordinance passed Wednesday by Chicago aldermen.

Alds. Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward, Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th Ward, and Daniel LaSpata, 1st Ward, wanted to freeze demolitions and all new construction permits until March 2021. That was supposed to be a way to stop longtime residents from being displaced as developers tear down buildings and put up expensive new homes.

Housing prices have increased 300% in the area around the 606, according to an updated study out today by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.

But the ordinance was scaled back after conversations with Lightfoot, who didn’t support the original proposal. She expressed concerns about the plan’s legality, but allowed a revised version to advance.

Lightfoot characterized the watered-down plan as “a legally defensible, but a temporary path to allow for a more comprehensive means to address affordable housing preservation along the 606 trail.”

The measure that passed will freeze all demolition permits for the next six months in areas of Logan Square and Humboldt Park close to The 606. Ald. Maldonado doesn’t think the new version goes far enough.

“I’m not a surgeon, I’m a politician, and I think we do need a hammer to really stop gentrification in the city of Chicago and in the 26th Ward,” he said Tuesday. Ironically, Maldonado has personally benefited from rising property values in the area and near the 606.

New public health commissioner (finally) and new transportation commissioner

Aldermen confirmed two key administration positions Wednesday — one of which had been stuck in committee for months due to controversy.

Dr. Allison Arwady’s nomination stalled back in October. Aldermen objected because they wanted her to commit to reopening the public mental health clinics that were closed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Arwady has worked in the department for several years and has been serving as interim commissioner since Lightfoot took office last May.

During multiple committee meetings on her confirmation, Arwady said she’s committed to growing public mental health services across the city and carrying out Lightfoot’s plan to expand access.

Aldermen also confirmed Gia Biagi to head the Department of Transportation. An architect from Studio Gang and former planner with the Chicago Park District, Biagi replaces the vacancy left by Rebecca Scheinfeld.

Three large legal settlements approved, one denied

Aldermen are routinely asked to approve legal settlements brought to them by city lawyers as a way to end lawsuits brought against City Hall. The tab for 2020 stands at $1 million, after the Council on Wednesday approved three large payouts in cases involving Chicago police.

But aldermen also denied one of the settlements city lawyers were seeking approval for. The proposed $125,000 payout would have settled a lawsuit brought by a witness to the Laquan McDonald shooting.

Alma Benitez sued the city in 2016, alleging she was wrongfully detained, held and pressured to change her account of the shooting. Aldermen voted the deal down, pushing city lawyers need to go back and work out a lower payout. If a settlement is reached below $100,000, it will not need City Council approval.

Last year, Chicago paid $93 million in legal settlements and fees, exceeding the $62 million budgeted for 2019. These payouts have routinely exceeded the city’s estimate so Lightfoot more than doubled the line item for 2020.

WBEZ City Politics Reporter Claudia Morell contributed reporting.