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Affordable to Whom?/Intruder in the Garden

The mayor's plan to set aside housing might work better in Wilmette.

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It's been more than two years since Mayor Daley squelched an attempt by activists to force the city to build more low-income housing, pressuring several aldermen into dropping their support for the Balanced Development Act. But the activists are back, badgering aldermen to give affordable housing another go.

This isn't an abstract issue. The rising cost of housing threatens the stability of thousands of residents throughout the city, making it harder for poor and working-class people to find decent living conditions. And higher costs mean higher assessments, hence higher property taxes, which increases the burden on tenants and home owners alike. According to a recent study by the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group, property taxes in low-income communities like Englewood will rise by as much as 162 percent in August if the state doesn't extend the so-called 7 percent property tax cap.

In the last go-round the Balanced Development Coalition, a citywide group of housing activists, proposed that the city require developers to set aside 25 percent of all new development or rehabbed housing units for those with low and moderate incomes. Led in the City Council by Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, the group attracted supporters including unions, senior citizens, and church leaders, among them Cardinal Francis George. But it didn't have the support of the one man who really counted. Mayor Daley steadfastly opposed the set-asides, saying they would stifle development. Coalition members counter that similar set-asides have passed in prospering cities such as Boston; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas.

In 2004 the coalition counted 28 aldermen in favor of their proposal, which they figured to pass even over Daley's objection. But in a reversal that anticipated the fight over the big-box minimum-wage ordinance, Daley pressured aldermen Isaac Carothers (29th), Emma Mitts (37th), Danny Solis (25th), and Latasha Thomas (17th) to drop their support.

On the eve of this year's mayoral election Daley attempted to appease activists by proposing his own set-aside ordinance, suggesting that developers who receive city subsidies or zoning variances set aside 10 percent of their units for affordable housing. The problem is Daley's definition of affordable. In the case of multibedroom housing, he wants it to mean "affordable to families making 100 percent of the area's median income," which is $75,000. But this figure includes wealthy suburbs like Lake Forest, Winnetka, and Oak Brook. The median income in Chicago is only $46,888 a year.

"I'm glad the mayor made a proposal--that's a step in the right direction," says Nate Hutcheson, a member of the Lakeview Action Coalition. "But it's not going to help people who make less than $70,000 or $75,000 a year. That includes teachers, firemen, policeman, nurses, and so on. They call it affordable housing but it won't really be affordable." The coalition has put forth a proposal that would require developers receiving city subsidies or zoning changes to set aside 15 to 20 percent of their new units for families making around the $47,000 median.

Good luck on getting it through the council. Even the mayor's proposal has been greeted by criticism from builders and developers. Most likely Daley will call his proposal the best possible compromise--since it makes both sides unhappy. Only in Chicago, a city of suckers, will anyone fall for that.

Intruder in the Garden

The city has picked a strange place to build a bus shelter: in the garden of the Fellger Playlot Park, on the northwest corner of Damen and Belmont.

"It's a classic case of the city not telling the Park District what it's doing," says Peter Donoghue, a Roscoe Village resident.

The intrusion is irksome to Donoghue because he knows what it took to refurbish the playlot in the first place. The community got the Park District to landscape the plot and put in some new swings and slides and convinced a local businessman, Dan Cotter, to pay for a wrought-iron fence. Enlisting the help of the alderman at the time, "we made sure the city kept that corner of Damen and Belmont unobstructed by any news boxes or benches," Donoghue says. "So what do they do? They put up an obstruction."

Donoghue noticed the shelter being installed about two weeks ago. A portion of the wrought-iron fence had been cut away to make room for it, and the ten-foot shelter juts into the garden area. He called 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak, who said he didn't know anything about it and was outraged. Donoghue called the Park District and wound up talking to a woman named Vickie, who also said she didn't know anything about it and was outraged. A week passed; he called me. An hour or so after I called the Park District for comment, Vickie called Donoghue to say that, actually, Park District higher-ups had approved the installation.

The shelter is one of hundreds installed by JC Decaux, the French company awarded a contract in 2002 to provide shelters throughout the city. (In exchange for the right to sell advertising space on the shelters, it agreed to pay $307.5 million over 21 years.) Decaux wasn't the highest bidder, but in 2001 it had hired the law firm of Gery Chico, Daley's former chief of staff, to lobby on its behalf. After it received the contract, it hired Victor Reyes, a former top mayoral aide, to negotiate the deal. At the time Reyes was a member of the CTA board, whose president, Frank Kruesi, was on the three-person committee of city officials who selected Decaux.

Park District officials didn't return my call for comment. But according to Brian Steele, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, the city allowed Decaux to put the shelter in the park because that's the only way to leave enough room on the sidewalk to let a wheelchair pass, as it's required to do. This isn't the only location where the city has approved the installation of a shelter on park space, Steele says. Decaux has also put one in a slice of Hamlin Park, just south of the playlot.

The shelter in the garden doesn't have any ads slapped on it yet, but rest assured they're coming. "So great," says Donoghue. "Now we get a billboard in the park."

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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