In 232-page report, Lightfoot’s transition tees up housing initiatives, TIF reform

All of the proposals are important, but addressing the affordable housing shortfall will require that the Chicago Housing Authority return to its original mission of directly providing housing.

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Photo by Max Herman

Lori Lightfoot and the new City Council was inaugurated on Monday, May 20, 2019.

In the past week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot set a new tone for the city with an inspiring inauguration speech, put together a list of proposed City Council committee chairs, issued a 232-page transition report and filled top positions in her administration.

Her speech won praise for the progressive values it spelled out, and with its closing emphasis on compassion and solidarity, it could signal a sea change from the previous administration’s heavy-handed, moralistic “tough-love” approach to the city’s challenges.

It may be a sign of Lightfoot’s strength — she was elected with more popular votes than any mayor in 20 years — that she seems to have put together a City Council majority to support Scott Waguespack as Finance Committee chair. In Rahm Emanuel’s rubber-stamp council, Waguespack functioned as the gadfly. Now his critiques of shady budgeting practices and calls for serious TIF reform are suddenly much closer to the mainstream of Chicago politics.

It’s worth recalling that candidate Lightfoot strongly backed an ordinance proposed by Waguespack and other progressives in November — and subsequently squashed by Emanuel — to ensure TIFs went to blighted areas where development would not otherwise happen. That would be a big change.

No specific TIF reforms are spelled out in Lightfoot’s transition report, though the first step — establishing an advisory council to analyze how TIF money is being spent — could shed light on current spending commitments and other factors that Emanuel kept shrouded in secrecy.

The report also recommends the advisory council work to “refocus priorities for future districts around areas with the highest employment disparities and greatest needs”  and should “recognize connections between high-violence areas and areas harmed by TIF abuses.”

A key recommendation is standardizing community planning throughout the city — building on and institutionalizing the work of neighborhood planning efforts that have been convened by LISC, among others — and connecting them to a comprehensive citywide development plan. (That’s something Chicago hasn’t had since 1966.) This would represent a dramatic shift from the developer-centric approach of the Emanuel administration, in which deals were considered one by one as they were proposed by large-scale firms.

Lightfoot has promised action on several transition report recommendations. In a populist move that sharply breaks from the previous administration, she announced that her administration would restore water service to thousands of homes — mainly in black and Latino communities — where it was shut off due to Emanuel’s rate hikes. She also endorsed recommendations for replacing police in schools with restorative justice practitioners, and revamping the school budgeting formula to account for the needs of students in high-poverty areas. Their schools lost the most under Emanuel’s school-based budgeting.

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Given the controversy and confusion over aldermanic prerogative, one of Lightfoot’s more interesting appointments is Marisa Novara as housing commissioner. As vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, Novara co-authored the group’s “Cost of Segregation” study two years ago, which brought the issue of equity front and center by detailing the costs of racial discrimination in terms of public safety and billions of dollars of lost economic productivity. She’s also been prominent in advocating for reining in aldermanic control when it’s used to block affordable housing.

Lightfoot’s first executive order, removing aldermanic veto power over relatively minor matters such as signage permits, is what Novara and colleagues recommended as “an easy first step.” After that, MPC has called for revising the city’s zoning ordinance so that requests for changes are evaluated in terms of a citywide plan and racial equity standards. The group also backed the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance proposed last year, which would give the Zoning Review Board final say over affordable housing proposals rejected by the City Council.

This week Patricia Fron of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, who’s worked with Novara on the issue, said that with the new administration and City Council, a stronger version of that ordinance may be possible, but developing a new legislative proposal will take some time.

The issue is not simple. Some housing advocates point to the ability of progressive aldermen under the current system to use their influence to increase affordable housing.

MPC has also called for dramatically increasing city funding for the Department of Housing, expanding the use of Chicago Housing Authority vouchers in low-income areas, and raising funds to address homelessness with a graduated real estate transfer tax. There is also a push to promote homeownership and preserve existing affordable housing, including assistance for small landlords.

The transition report calls for establishing a task force to study changes to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, where unit production is far below projections. Progressive aldermen are backing an ordinance that would raise affordable unit requirements. This is one of several areas — including reopening city mental health clinics and raising the minimum wage — where a more independent City Council could take the initiative.

All these proposals are important, but more will be needed if anything near the 120,000 shortfall in affordable units is to be addressed. One option that would help folks at the bottom of the income ladder is returning the Chicago Housing Authority to its original mission of directly providing housing. The agency has steadily moved away from that mission, leaning heavily on housing vouchers — increasingly concentrated in low-income minority areas — and privatizing thousands of units through the federal government’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

Under Emanuel, construction of new units slowed dramatically and thousands of vouchers were held back while CHA built huge cash reserves. According to Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative, CHA issued a $310 million capital bond last year — a huge amount, comparable to the budget for the agency’s Plan For Transformation — with no public discussion of its purpose. “CHA has lots of money to do things with, if there is the vision and the will to do it,” Levinger said.

That would be consistent with candidate Lightfoot’s support for restoring the requirement that CHA replace all units that are demolished or taken offline — and with her emphasis on using all options for creating new affordable housing.