The mayoral housing forum that almost wasn’t

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Photo by April Alonso

Several mayoral candidates participated in the Chicago Housing Initiative’s forum on housing affordability and equitable development on Dec. 11, 2018, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

At a Chicago Housing Initiative forum Tuesday night, six mayoral candidates embraced in broad strokes key elements of the housing justice movement’s agenda – ending the “aldermanic prerogative” used to keep affordable housing out of predominantly white areas of the city, closing loopholes in the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, increasing accountability for the Chicago Housing Authority and instituting a community benefits agreement for the Obama Presidential Center.

On rent control, the response was mixed. But overall the possibility of a new, post-Rahm Emanuel direction for the city was clear.

The extent to which these commitments might be translated into action next year remains to be seen. The housing movement clearly demonstrated its strength Tuesday night, but the realtors lobby still holds great sway over the city’s politicians.

Indeed, a countermove by the Chicago Association of Realtors nearly torpedoed CHI’s forum, organizers say.

According to CHI executive director Leah Levinger, on last month the realtors association announced it was co-sponsoring a mayoral forum by the 38th Ward Democrats that was scheduled for the same night as CHI’s event. The next morning representatives of a series of candidates – Lori Lightfoot, Garry McCarthy, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Paul Vallas – called to cancel their participation in the housing forum.

By the end of the day, only Dorothy Brown, Amara Enyia, and Jamal Green were standing by their commitments to CHI.

It was a bit confounding, Levinger said, because the 38th Ward event ended up with 300 or so attendees versus some 1,000 at CHI’s. Part of it could have been what she calls “race-class privilege,” with mayoral candidates apparently more interested in white middle-class residents from the Northwest Side than the much larger multi-ethnic working class audience assembled by the groups that make up CHI. But it also seemed to demonstrate the political weight of the realtors’ lobby.

After extensive negotiations, the 38th Ward Dems agreed to coordinate start times for the forums so CHI’s could be held earlier, and Lightfoot, McCarthy, and Preckwinkle agreed to attend both. (For the record, Mendoza and Vallas went to the 38th Ward forum; Bill Daley doesn’t seem to be attending any community forums.)

At the housing forum, with some variation on details, candidates backed the main thrust of two ordinances proposed by CHI and allies. The Development For All Ordinance would increase the affordable housing set-aside for city-assisted housing developments from 10 to 30 percent (Preckwinkle said she supports a 20 percent requirement; Lightfoot only discussed increasing requirements that units be built on-site) and end the opt-out fees, set far below the actual cost of housing units, that have undermined the effectiveness of existing ordinance. It would also mandate family-sized units and set tiers of affordability levels to include lower-income families who are now excluded by Affordable Requirements Ordinance set-asides.

The Housing For All Ordinance would reinstate one-for-one replacement requirements for public housing redevelopment, restrict the use of public housing land for non-housing uses and require the Chicago Housing Authority to report on its activities to the City Council. It would also limit the ability of aldermen to veto affordable housing in their wards.

The candidates’ support does portend a change, since Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his Housing Committee chair, Ald. Joe Moore (49th) – who is running for reelection – have opposed both ordinances.

The candidates split on rent control. McCarthy opposed it, Enyia backed lifting the state ban on rent control but didn’t commit to enacting it locally, and Lightfoot dodged the question entirely. Brown, Green, and Preckwinkle backed rent control.

Levinger suggests there are many misconceptions about modern rent stabilization measures, which provide for reasonable increases in landlords’ expenses. In addition, with affordable housing programs now tied to private market development, rapidly increasing rents limit the impact of public subsidies to developers.

In the back of the room where the forum took place, a couple of South Side community organizers were grumbling as Preckwinkle touted her record on housing during her two decades as Fourth Ward alderman. I spoke later with Jawanza Mallone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, who worked with low-income and public housing residents of the ward during Preckwinkle’s tenure.

He recalls an alderman who backed development policies that led to the displacement of thousands of low-income working families from her ward. While Preckwinkle says she brought in 15,000 units of affordable housing, he says the actual cost of so-called affordable units was often out of reach for existing residents. While Preckwinkle says she worked with public housing residents, Mallone points to a KOCO study finding that over 2,500 public housing units in North Kenwood and Oakland were lost while she was alderman. And while now, when the CHA’s Plan For Transformation is near completion, she backs one-for-one replacement, he says that when it mattered, she was a major supporter of the mixed-income formula for redevelopment that excluded many displaced public housing residents.

In addition, while Preckwinkle now takes credit for a community benefits agreement for the proposed 2016 Olympics, Mallone recalls the resistance that CBA organizers had to overcome and tough negotiations to make sure the resulting CBA had anything approaching enforceability.

It’s great that candidates now feel they have to address the concerns of housing advocates. But whoever is elected mayor, much will depend on having a stronger progressive caucus in the City Council – and on grassroots organizations keeping up the pressure.