What You Missed This Week During Chicago’s Budget Hearings

City Hall
City Hall in downtown Chicago. Bill Healy / WBEZ
City Hall
City Hall in downtown Chicago. Bill Healy / WBEZ

What You Missed This Week During Chicago’s Budget Hearings

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The impending - and then actual - retirement of Chicago’s top cop dominated most of the news out of City Hall this week.

It was the second week of hearings on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed 2020 spending plan. And it kicked off with a 10-hour long hearing on Monday for the Chicago Police Department, during which Superintendent Eddie Johnson hinted at his plans to retire.

By the end of the week, Johnson’s retirement was official and Lightfoot had picked former LA Police Chief Charlie Beck to serve as interim head of the department.

Here’s what else you missed at City Hall this week.

The politics of public mental health services

While the award for the longest hearing of the week went to the CPD, the runner-up was the city’s Department of Public Health. Their Tuesday hearing ran for about six hours, as aldermen peppered the yet-to-be-confirmed commissioner Allison Arwady with questions.

The issue of how the city addresses the mental health needs of its residents has become something of a political football since 2012, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics.

Since then, activists and aldermen have been pushing Lightfoot to re-open those clinics. The mayor is proposing a $9.3 million increase to mental health resources, including to violence prevention efforts and private, non-profit care providers.

“We don’t have the money to reopen all the clinics that were closed, but those $9 million certainly can help us to make a step forward to re-open at least some of them that had been closed,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward.

But during the hearing, several aldermen who have pushed for the clinics to re-open softened their rhetoric and praised Arwady for committing additional full-time staff to the clinics that remain open.

Arwady repeatedly told aldermen there were no plans to re-open clinics this year, but said Lightfoot’s administration plans to fund 15 brick-and-mortar health centers operated by non-profits.

She says the department is focused this year on “understanding where our gaps are” and future years will be “all about filling gaps.”

New planning commissioner gets subtle lesson in aldermanic prerogative

On Thursday, Maurice Cox, the city’s new Commissioner of Planning and Development, went before aldermen to tout the administration’s plan to revitalize neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Cox said his department will re-deploy 20 existing city planners and hire eight more to focus on specific zones. Cox talked about taking tours with various aldermen, though noted he hasn’t made it to every ward just yet.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, 11th Ward, is still waiting for a visit. He gave Cox a bit of advice for working with the city’s 50 mini-mayors, who have long enjoyed unwritten power over zoning and development decisions in their ward, commonly called aldermanic prerogative.

“I think you’re touring with the alderman. You’re not taking them on a tour,” said Daley Thompson, the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. “[Planners] come from wherever and might be talented in planning but they have to understand what is the heartbeat of the community, what it is a community wants.”

Daley Thompson said his ward, which includes Bridgeport, is a “bedroom community” and his residents don’t want to be told they “need to have more density.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, said he’s glad the new city planners will be assigned to specific neighborhoods and advised they “not just look at Google maps” but get out in the field and talk with aldermen and residents.

Affordable housing can’t be optional, says new commissioner

The cost of housing and the amount of affordable housing across Chicago was a key campaign issue for many aldermen during the 2019 election. Several new members of City Council got elected on promises to increase the amount of affordable housing.

But getting affordable housing built has been difficult.

The City Council passed a new law in 2015 requiring developers seeking city money or zoning changes to build affordable units as part of their project. But many choose not to, instead paying fees that allow them to skip building new affordable units. City Hall uses those fees to help fund affordable housing elsewhere.

Ald. James Cappleman, 46th Ward, said it’s good to collect those fees, but it creates an imbalance: Some wards, like his, have lots of affordable housing, while other wards have little to none.

“What I’ve noticed is that a small number of community areas are providing the bulk of affordable housing,” Cappleman said. “What plans do you have to have more equitable distribution of all different types of housing throughout the city? Knowing that Aldermen don’t always like what you’re going to say.”

Housing commissioner Marisa Novara said that is a problem that keeps Chicago segregated to this day.

“Racism created our segregation and then we maintain it by making a provision of affordable housing optional,” Novara said.

Going forward, she wants to change that.

“We have not, in the past, ever asked for or expected that every community would contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs,” she said. “Everyone needs to contribute. It can’t be optional.”

The Department of Housing will see a more than $20 million increase in its budget in 2020. Most of that is due to a projected increase in the fees developers pay to get out of building affordable units on site.

Ride-hail surge & short-term rental gripes

From ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to short-term rental operators like Airbnb, much of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection focuses on gathering data about the impact these apps have on Chicago.

On ride-hailing, some mind-boggling numbers came up during this week’s hearing: When ride-sharing first entered Chicago back in 2015, the city recorded 28 million trips. By the end of this year, that number is expected to surpass 111 million trips.

In Chicago, there’s over 100,000 drivers registered to pick up passengers through a ride-hailing app, though about 30% of them are considered inactive.

Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, asked how many of those registered drivers are out of state, adding, “We sure do see a lot of Indiana license plates, I tell ya.”

BACP Commissioner Rosa Escareno said two-thirds of chauffeur drivers registered with a city of Chicago zip code. She didn’t have out-of-state numbers.

The issue of short-term rentals, like Airbnb, raised the ire of one alderman.

Michele Smith represents the 43rd Ward, whose Lincoln Park neighborhood is flooded with short-term rentals. She has said these rentals create a nuisance for neighbors, with strangers going in and out of apartment buildings and holding parties at all hours of the night.

She was aggressive in questioning Escareno’s plans to regulate the industry. There are more Airbnb rentals in Smith’s ward than any other and she has been critical of how the city has chosen to regulate the industry.

In 2019, the city had 278 appeals related to short-term rentals. BACP regulators often rely on or work with the Law Department to handle these cases, Escareno said. Smith demanded more resources, saying that New York “is spending $10 million a year on the short-term rental problem.”

“Many other cities are devoting huge amounts of resources to regulate this brand new industry,” Smith added. She then asked Escareno how many more people she’d need for her department to be more effective. But Escareno downplayed the need to hire more staff, saying she’d be open to amending the ordinance but doesn’t want to burden taxpayers.

Becky Vevea and Claudia Morell cover city politics for WBEZ.