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Luxury apartment buildings in Chicago are built typically in neighborhoods with no shortage of well-to-do renters or in working-class parts of town where they serve as a vehicle for gentrification. Though the city's Affordable Requirements Ordinance is meant to stem the drain of reasonably priced rental housing, developers have all too often elected to pay a fee in place of setting aside 10 percent of their units as affordable for people making 60 percent or less of the area median income. Most aldermen hardly put up a fight when developers do this, eager to see any kind of economic stimulus in their wards, especially if it promises to bring in higher-income constituents. This only goes to reinforce segregation in the city, as formerly affordable neighborhoods fall out of reach for working-class people and high-opportunity areas remain hopelessly closed off to lower-income households. Which is why the story of a planned 297-unit apartment building at 8535 W. Higgins near O'Hare is a curious one.
The ten-acre site sits in the mostly white 41st Ward, across the highway from the Cumberland Blue Line stop. Plans have been in motion since 2015 to develop some commercial and residential buildings there. Located in one of Chicago's major job centers—adjacent to the airport, as well as malls, hotels, and office parks—the area nevertheless lacks rental housing, both for young professionals and for minimum-wage workers. To GlenStar, a developer specializing in upscale commercial and residential properties, building mostly studio and one-bedroom units alongside two new office buildings on the site seemed like a good idea. Over the course of the last year, with a blessing from the 41st Ward Zoning Advisory Committee and Alderman Anthony Napolitano (currently Chicago's only Republican alderman), GlenStar worked to fine-tune its proposal to Department of Planning and Development specifications. They even committed to making 30 units on site affordable, in full compliance with the letter and spirit of the ARO. However, last spring, the alderman suddenly abandoned his support of the development shortly after controversy erupted over a planned affordable-housing building in nearby Jefferson Park. GlenStar hasn't gotten a satisfactory explanation from Napolitano about his change of heart. It also hasn't received a zoning hearing in City Council that's required to move forward with construction. The saga of this planned development, which has played out in e-mail exchanges obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, as well as at public meetings and in the press, is yet another lesson in how Chicago-style democracy continues to reinforce segregation and class divides across the city.
In January 2016 Napolitano sent a letter to Department of Planning and Development commissioner David Reifman expressing support for the development of an apartment and office buildings on a parcel next to a Marriott hotel on Higgins Road. At that time the development was controlled by a different developer. Once GlenStar took over the property later that year, it proceeded with the same vision of the site, adding 77 more apartment units to the previously proposed 220. The parcel was zoned only for commercial development, however, and so GlenStar began the process of getting a zoning amendment to allow for a residential structure.
The developer commissioned a traffic- and school-impact study and presented the results to the 41st ward Zoning Advisory Committee. Given that the building would be mostly studios and one-bedroom units, with a smattering of two-bedroom units, and given its extreme proximity to the Blue Line, the potential impact on traffic was predicted to be minimal. The study also found that the nearly $90 million development was likely to bring in fewer than 20 school-aged children, thereby posing little threat to the over-crowded local public schools. DNAinfo reported that at the December 2016 Zoning Advisory Committee meeting, GlenStar's managing principal Larry Debb said that with the cheapest non-ARO units starting at $1,200 per month, "we find that a lot of people who are paying this kind of money would send their kids to parochial or private schools." (Rent caps for the affordable units would be set at $800 for studios, $850 for one-bedrooms, and $1,020 for two-bedroom units.)
With no one speaking against that proposal at the meeting, nor voicing opposition in the ensuing month, the 11-member Zoning Advisory Committee approved GlenStar's proposal in January 2017 by unanimous vote with one abstention. In the months that followed, GlenStar prepared to seek approval from the Chicago Plan Commission—the next step toward breaking ground on the apartment building.
Though the developer wouldn't become aware of it until months later, GlenStar's rift with Napolitano began in February, and its roots had nothing to do with the apartment building on Higgins Rd. Rather, a proposed 100-unit affordable housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Highway backed by 45th Ward Alderman John Arena became a flashpoint between local homeowners, progressive housing groups, and Arena's political opponents. That building was intended primarily for families, veterans, and people with disabilities. At a February 9 community meeting hosted by Arena, local residents expressed nakedly bigoted opposition to an anticipated influx of poor people of color into the northwest side. An angry crowd that gathered outside the meeting chanted "No Section 8!" and waved signs reading "Jefferson Park is not Rogers Park," and "Cabrini started as vet housing too." Napolitano was among them. The alderman told Nadig Newspapers, which covers the northwest side, that his office had been inundated with calls regarding Arena's proposal. Napolitano tried to distance himself from the racist flavor of the protest while defending his constituents' concerns. "I don't believe it has anything to do with the racial tone that is being painted," he told Nadig. "It has to do with the density issue. Our schools are bursting at the seams."
Over the next month, as the rhetoric of the opposition metamorphosed from open to veiled racism, Napolitano continued to stand by groups such as Northwest Side Unite and the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, which waged a public relations battle with supporters of the project such as Neighbors for Affordable Housing and the Chicago Housing Initiative.
In an e-mail exchange the groups supporting the project obtained via FOIA request and shared with the Reader, Arena accused Napolitano of being hypocritical in his opposition of the affordable development in the 45th Ward while supporting a building with three times as many units on Higgins Road in his own ward. Napolitano wrote back that the two buildings shouldn't be compared. "This is high-end micro apartments geared towards young professionals, completely different than what's being forced into Jefferson Park," Napolitano wrote. "[The Higgins parcel] is exactly where you'd expect to see density."
But Napolitano's outlook began to change. In the late spring of 2017, as GlenStar worked toward a hearing and vote on its proposal at the June meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission, Napolitano began sending e-mails to the Department of Planning and Development and his ward's Zoning Advisory Committee declaring his opposition to the apartment building and citing an outpouring of disapproval from "thousands" of local residents to GlenStar's project.
E-mail exchanges reveal surprise from those who received Napolitano's letters. When ZAC chair Mike Emerson asked the alderman to explain his reversal to "help us better understand where and how this ground swell of dissent is being delivered, processed, and acted upon," Napolitano responded with a link to a Nadig story about the opposition to the building in Arena's ward. (Emerson didn't return requests for comment. It remains unclear whether he received any further explanation from the alderman.)
In his correspondence with the Department of Planning and Development, Napolitano also claimed that because GlenStar had recently added two additional units to the building, bringing the planned total to 299 apartments, "the changes made to the proposal completely nullify the school impact study and traffic study."
Ahead of the Chicago Plan Commission's June meeting, Napolitano's chief of staff Chris Vittorio wrote Department of Planning and Development assistant commissioner Patrick Murphy regarding 8535 W. Higgins, saying that "Alderman Napolitano would like to defer this matter indefinitely."
Napolitano and his staff also began opposing the Higgins development in the media. In mid-June Vittorio indicated to DNAinfo that the uproar about the Jefferson Park building animated Napolitano's change in attitude toward the GlenStar's proposal.
Ultimately the June hearing was deferred because GlenStar and not the alderman asked for the extension. In the weeks before the following Plan Commission hearing in July, GlenStar's Larry Debb wrote to Napolitano in an effort to understand his changed position and reiterate that the apartment building wouldn't significantly disrupt local density, traffic, or schools.
"Given your prior support, the public's support, and the unanimous support from the [Zoning Advisory Committee] earlier this year, we are surprised and troubled by this situation," Debb wrote. He added that without the understanding that Napolitano had been in full support of the project, GlenStar would never have expended money and time on the proposal during the prior six months. Given the size of the planned apartments and the "price point of approximately $2,300 a month, there would be no more than six (6) children living in the entire residential portion of the development," he stressed, adding that the building's property tax contributions to Chicago Public Schools "could be over $500,000 per year, far in excess of any possible new costs for schools associated with school-aged children living in the new apartment building."
Debb was not available for comment, but according to Rand Diamond, another managing principal at GlenStar, the company did not receive a response from Napolitano to the letter. Instead, the alderman appeared before a Plan Commission hearing on July 20 and plead the members to vote no on the proposal. It passed despite his objections, with just one nay vote from 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, who said he respected Napolitano's wishes and that the building didn't have as many affordable housing units on-site as he would like to have seen in a development of that size.
The next step in getting approval for the building would be a vote in the zoning committee in September. Furious that the Plan Commission OK'd the development, Napolitano wrote e-mails to Department of Planning and Development commissioners, demanding to know why a vote had been held on the Higgins building after he'd asked for it to be indefinitely deferred. In one response, he was reminded by the department's managing deputy commissioner, Patti Scudiero that, per Chicago's zoning ordinance, only the developer had the right to ask for a deferral in Plan Commission hearings.
Over the next month Napolitano concentrated his efforts on preventing the Higgins building from being considered by the zoning committee, chaired by 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis. E-mails reveal Vittorio coaching Dirksen Elementary principal Daniel Lucas in writing a letter to the zoning committee to express opposition to the Higgins proposal, as well as a 397-unit residential building proposed for 8601 W. Bryn Mawr. "Please share specifics regarding Dirksen's capacity and actual enrollment as well as the growth rate during your time at Dirksen," Vittorio wrote to Lucas. "Please also explain the result of any potential increase in enrollment."
The school, as Napolitano had been pointing out for weeks, was already overcapacity with more than 900 students in a space designed for some 600. Napolitano also personally sent e-mails to Solis and the other zoning committee members declaring his opposition to GlenStar's proposal. The developer, meanwhile, decided to increase the number of onsite affordable housing units from seven to 30, in response to Tunney's criticism and the requests of affordable housing advocates on the northwest side.
The next time GlenStar and Napolitano met face to face was that September 11 zoning committee meeting, where the alderman kept testifying about the density and the schools. He also claimed that it was the first time he'd heard that there was affordable housing planned for the site. "In the end, I have to speak on behalf of my community. I have to speak on behalf of the schools. And I have to speak that there was no affordable housing in this until today," Napolitano said.
GlenStar's attorney, Jack George, reiterated the developer's dismay with Napolitano's position. The alderman, it seemed to George, "is concerned lately about this educational issue. But when he changed his mind and told me he wasn't going to support it, I said, 'Can I go back to your community and make another presentation?' And he said no. He said, 'I have talked to them and you can't go back.'"
George added, "This is the first time in my 45 years of practicing zoning that I have ever had to disagree with an alderman before this body."
Solis than called a recess, inviting Napolitano and the committee to speak off the record. The public meeting resumed 14 minutes later with Solis announcing that 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez had a motion on this item. Lopez moved to defer it. A chorus of ayes voiced their approval, with not a single alderman voting against.
After the meeting, Napolitano expressed surprise that the developer wanted to now put 30 affordable units on the Higgins site. DNAinfo reported that he called the change "dirty," something intended "to tug on the heartstrings of the [zoning] committee on behalf of affordable housing." The Higgins development hasn't come before the zoning committee since. If it isn't voted on in the January 9 meeting and approved by the full City Council by January 20, the Plan Commission's approval becomes null and void, effectively sending GlenStar back to square one.
Diamond says he doesn't know what the company will do if this happens. "We've never had this situation come up before," he said, adding that while he can't be sure, it seems like politics are at play in both Napolitano's and Solis's treatment of their proposal. It's possible GlenStar will simply use the parcel meant for the apartments to build another office building, for which they wouldn't need to seek any more approvals or zoning changes. If that happens, however, Diamond points out that it will only increase density on the parcel and bring more traffic to the area given the parking requirements for commercial development.
While Diamond is perplexed by the situation, it seems that whatever happens GlenStar's business won't be irreparably hurt by the maelstrom around the apartment building. The real losers in this situation appear to be the Chicagoans—including those in the 41st ward—who need rental housing, and particularly affordable housing, near jobs and transit stops. According to data compiled by UIC's Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, some half of the O'Hare community area's renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. According to 2015 Census data about half of the neighborhood households made less than 60 percent of the Area Median Income for families of three.
In the months since the September 11 zoning committee deferral, affordable housing advocates have tried to no avail to get answers from Solis on the status of the proposal.
To Sara Gronkiewicz-Doran of Neighbors for Affordable Housing (many of whose members live in the 41st Ward) it seems that Napolitano, a former cop and firefighter almost half of whose constituents voted for Trump decided to shift his position on the apartment building to pander to his base—the same people who turned out to decry a proposed affordable housing development in Jefferson Park as an attempt to bring "the projects" to the northwest side.
"We requested a meeting with Alderman Napolitano and we know he got that request," Gronkiewicz-Doran says. "He didn't ever respond." She thinks that Solis's honoring of Napolitano's wishes to indefinitely defer a zoning hearing contravenes due process and "sends a message from Alderman Solis to developers in the city that you can be penalized for including affordable housing. That completely goes against the mission of the ARO and the stated goals of the aldermen on the zoning committee."
Compliance with federal fair housing law is also at issue. Because Chicago accepts funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it's bound to "affirmatively further" desegregation. The letter of the law remains unchanged even as the Trump administration announced Friday that it has rolled back Obama-era rules that required cities to show the specific ways they're affirmatively furthering fair housing.
In a December letter, attorney Kate Walz of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law reminded Solis of these fair housing obligations. "The City should not use its zoning committee to block, delay, or obstruct projects including affordable housing up for consideration, including when those projects are opposed by the ward's alderman," Walz wrote. In an interview she emphasized that such actions "could be considered in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act if the city is either taking up the request of neighbors to block affordable housing that would benefit protected classes or if one alderman is taking up the cause of another alderman [to do so]." The city could also possibly be sued for blocking the construction of affordable housing based on opposition animated by racial animus.
Confronted with these perspectives, Thomas Bowen, a spokesman for Solis, only alluded to the tenets of aldermanic prerogative. "Alderman Solis greatly respects his colleagues and the fact that they have been chosen by the voters to represent them," he said in an e-mailed statement. "On matters of zoning changes, the Chicago City Council has always given great deference to the Alderman of the ward where a change is requested."
Meanwhile Alderman Tunney, who sits on both the Plan Commission and zoning committee, and whose stated opposition to GlenStar's development centered on the dearth of affordable housing, did not return repeated requests for comment on why he hasn't stood up for the building once the developer committed to put all the required ARO units onsite.
In an e-mail to the Reader, Napolitano reiterated that his opposition to the apartment building at 8535 W. Higgins began after the kerfuffle over the Jefferson Park proposal, as his office was "inundated with phone calls and walk-ins in opposition of the high-density developments." He added that it was the Dirksen Elementary Local School Council who "reached out to me and scheduled a meeting regarding their concerns with adding even 1 student to their enrollment," and not the other way around, as the e-mails suggest.
He concluded that, "Ultimately my job is to advocate for the residents of the 41st Ward, especially those that live close to this proposal. It is very clear to me that they are strongly opposed to this development." Asked whether he'd conducted surveys to see whether the opposition he'd been hearing was representative of the ward, Napolitano didn't respond.
Since the passage of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance in 2007, the 41st Ward hasn't added a single unit of affordable housing, according to a March report from the Chicago Office of Inspector General. The proposed apartment building on Higgins Road would be a small step in the direction of compliance with local and federal housing policy. Napolitano, however, seems to be unwilling to be a leader on this matter. He's opted instead to position himself as a champion of the will of a vocal group of constituents, however damaging that will might be to other people in the city. His colleagues in the City Council, meanwhile, are choosing to maintain the tradition of aldermanic prerogative rather than uphold the city's own policies and procedures. It's the same code of conduct that has allowed discriminatory NIMBYism to dictate housing policy and has reinforced segregation in Chicago for decades.