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Middle-Class Living Room

Aldermen risk Daley's wrath to insist on affordable space.

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The City Council may be about to take a baby step toward independence, may be about to actually defy Mayor Daley. At issue is an ordinance that would require developers in gentrifying neighborhoods to set aside apartments for low- and middle-income residents. Three years ago 15 community groups formed a coalition to push for such an ordinance, and they persuaded Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle to introduce one in 2002. But only a few council independents supported it, notably aldermen Joe Moore (of the 49th Ward), Helen Shiller (46th), and Ricardo Munoz (22nd). "Mayor Daley felt it would kill the goose that laid the golden egg," says Moore. "He thought it would stifle development. He was never for it."

Since then the mayor has used his influence to keep the ordinance buried in the council's housing committee, which is chaired by 31st Ward alderman Regner Suarez, a particularly loyal Daley backer. Suarez has never let the ordinance out of his committee for a vote. He's never even scheduled hearings on it. "The mayor hasn't budged on this," says Tom Walsh of the Organization of the NorthEast, a member of the coalition. "Mayor Daley has refused to ever meet with us--and there's been many, many requests."

The ordinance would cover all new and rehabbed buildings--including condo conversions--with ten or more units, and 25 percent of those units would have to be affordable. As Daley sees it, that would undercut everything his administration has done over the last decade to build the city's tax base by encouraging residential development. "Developers don't have to build here--if you make it too tough they can go elsewhere," explains one city planner. "I can see [the ordinance] leading to lawsuits. It won't work, in my opinion."

From this point of view, forcing developers to set aside affordable housing units would reduce their incentive to build, because it would decrease the amount of money they could make from selling their buildings. Walsh contends that such objections are exaggerations, since the ordinance would also offer developers incentives.

He also points out that it's intended to help people with a decent income, not just the poor. "We're basically talking about offering rental and home housing opportunities to people making $15,000 to $40,000 a year," he says. "This is not housing for people with no income--not that there's anything wrong with that. It serves the housing needs of tens of thousands of households that are not being served." A 2003 study done for the coalition by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest showed that "only 2% of all new home construction has been affordable to households earning at or below [$34,350]. Only 10% of all new home construction has been affordable to households earning at or below [$54,960]."

Throughout 2002 the coalition held rallies and press conferences to build support for the ordinance. On the eve of the March 2003 aldermanic elections Preckwinkle reintroduced it, and this time about 15 aldermen signed on. Daley countered with his own version of a set-aside plan, one that required developers to make a quarter of housing units built on city-owned land or backed by city money affordable. It passed unanimously.

The coalition members weren't happy. "The city had already been requiring developers getting city money to set aside for affordable housing," says Walsh. "So this really wasn't anything new."

That's where things stood until early this month. On March 2 the coalition held a press conference outside the mayor's City Hall office, and religious leaders from various faiths--rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, Buddhist monks--read appropriate passages from sacred texts. Soon after, the coalition surveyed the council again and discovered that they suddenly had 24 yes votes--just two shy of the 26 they needed.

What changed in the past year? For starters, the council gained a few more independent-minded aldermen, including First Ward alderman Manny Flores and 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon, who defeated Daley-backed incumbents last year. In addition, more aldermen may be willing to brave Daley's wrath now that the Hired Truck scandal has made him seem vulnerable. And continually rising housing costs have made it so difficult for middle-income people to buy a home that the ordinance has more public support. Years ago Daley's father imposed residency requirements on city workers, arguing that they would help stabilize middle-class neighborhoods. Now officials in teacher, police, and firefighter unions say they want the requirement lifted because the city has become too expensive for their members. "There's an urgency out there," says Alderman Moore. "A lot of us are hearing from our constituents that they or their children are being priced out of the neighborhood."

Pressure for better balanced development across the city is also coming from less-well-off neighborhoods that have seen an influx of lower-income people who were priced out of their former communities. "There's a stress and strain that comes from gentrification," says Reverend Sharod Gordon of Target, a south-side economic-development organization in Auburn Gresham that's a member of the coalition. "Our high schools get overcrowded. There's crime and drugs and prostitution. We're looking at the other side of gentrification--when people get pushed out of other neighborhoods up north and come here."

Walsh says other aldermen have told the coalition they'll get onboard if the percentage of apartments that has to be set aside is cut. "I think it's eventually going to pass, because the coalition's done a good job of keeping up the pressure," says Moore. "One by one the coalition brings more aldermen into the fold, and eventually the administration will change."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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