Chicago has a housing problem: the rents are too damn high

Andre Vasquez, alderman-elect for Chicago’s 40th ward, speaks at an April 10, 2019, protest against the proposed billion dollar tax subsidy for the Lincoln Yards development. Alderman-elect Michael Rodriguez stands next to Vasquez, his face partially obscured by the megaphone. Photo by Charles Edward Miller/Wikimedia.

My 23-year-old daughter called me one evening from the El. She was on her way home from her part-time, $14 an hour job that pays her portion of the rent for the small apartment she shares with three roommates.

“Mom, I met a woman on the train. She needs a place to sleep tonight. I’m going home to get her $20 and a blanket. I told her I’d get some shelter numbers. It sounds like she may be in a violent relationship. Do you have any suggestions where we can call?”

I called my friend who works in a city office that finds emergency shelter for people. It’s a never ending battle. There was nothing she could do then but offered her personal attention if the person came by the next day. The hotline numbers my daughter had already called were the same ones my friend suggested we try.

Every night, 80,000 Chicagoans sleep on the streets, in subway cars, shelters, or they double-up with family or friends. Every day, 156 people move out of Chicago, many of whom are African American, looking for safer communities, better jobs and affordable housing. The demand for affordable housing here outstrips the supply by some 120,000 units, and the gap is growing.

A recent Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University report could be summarized like this: the rents are too damn high, affordable apartments are too damn scarce, neighborhoods are too damn segregated and neglected. The Chicago area has lost population for the last four years and the report suggests part of the reason is the lack of affordable housing, especially in predominantly Black and Latino communities.

“This loss of population is significant, and the group most affected is the African American community,” said Charlton Hamer, senior vice president of The Habitat Co.’s affordable housing unit, to “If you take a ride through the West Side or South Side, the losses are quite evident.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over the deterioration of neighborhoods. Gun violence and crime are an epidemic. He closed a record number of public schools — 50 — and showered corporate high-end housing developers with tax increment financing (TIFs) for the last eight years, earning him the nickname Mayor 1%.

TIFs are meant to encourage development in economically-distressed areas. Chicago is full of these areas, especially on the South and West Sides. However, Emanuel focused his attention on developing the city’s downtown and near North Side areas, leaving neighborhoods to fend for themselves.

To add to the mix, Chicago had already destroyed public housing developments, most notoriously Cabrini Green in 2011, or turned them into “mixed-income” complexes, forcing many low-income and African American residents out of the city or onto an inadequate voucher program. In a city like Chicago, with its long history and stubborn practice of racial segregation and discrimination, the voucher program is rampant with both.

A WBEZ analysis shows that of the city’s 41,000 voucher holders, the vast majority are living in predominantly economically-distressed Black communities. The Chicago Public Radio station found that “15 communities in Chicago each have 1,000 or more vouchers — 13 of them are majority black, none are majority white, while 13 communities each have fewer than 50 vouchers — eight of them are majority white, none are majority black.”

Housing groups, progressive politicians and civic organizations have responded to the multiple challenges by fighting back and organizing. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Openlands and Metropolitan Planning Council are all advocating for a graduated real estate transfer tax.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and 30 of the incoming members of the City Council are in support of the graduated tax, which would lower taxes on typical home sales but raise the taxes on properties over $1 million, generating an estimated $150 million for affordable housing and related services. The plan is to put the graduated real estate tax change to the voters via referendum.

Rent control, vouchers, neighborhood-specific housing projects, and amending the Affordable Requirements Ordinance to increase substantially the number of affordable units developers must build in or near their market-rate buildings are other measures around which groups are organizing.

During Chicago’s recent mayoral and city council elections, voters peppered candidates with questions about affordable housing. It was the first issue the history-making mayor-elect Lightfoot, the first African American woman and first lesbian to be elected mayor of Chicago, had to confront even before her inauguration.

One week after her April 3 runoff election victory, the city council was scheduled to vote on $1.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies for the two upscale housing developments, Lincoln Yards and The 78. This was Emanuel’s parting “gift” to the city.

Despite a Lightfoot-requested delay in the vote and a mass protest against the tax giveaway, Emanuel and the lame duck city council plowed ahead with approving the funds for the developers.

Alderman-elect Michael Rodriguez joined with six other newly-elected progressive alderpeople in blocking traffic outside City Hall to protest the April 10 council vote. Rodriguez represents a working-class community on the southwest side, in which the population is overwhelmingly Mexican and immigrant but also includes Black and white ethnic neighborhoods.

“I couldn’t support more public resources — substantial public resources — going to Lincoln Park while the communities of North Lawndale, Little Village and Vittum Park continue to see a lack of investment,” Rodriguez said in a later phone interview.

“TIFs were created to invest in blighted communities. It’s within the statute. Lincoln Yards, particularly, is not in a blighted community by any stretch of common sense.”

Pressure to act within the first 100 days of May 20 inauguration of the new mayor and city council is growing with the freshmen class of aldermen, which include five newly-elected socialists, taking the lead.

“We’ve got to do a better job as a city providing affordable housing,” Rodriguez said. “Working-class people are being priced out of our city.”

Speaking about his priorities when he takes office, Rodriguez said, “All these communities share in common recent losses in population,” he said, and “rents that are skyrocketing.”

He supports lifting the state-imposed ban on rent control and government investments in public housing, “at all levels of government — federal, county, state and city,” particularly on the south and west sides of Chicago.

“The previous administration had a focus on downtown and the affluent. While both of those groups are important constituencies in our city, we have to equally value working-class communities who are getting a bum deal in our current tax structure.”

I think back to my daughter’s phone call, my friend’s never-ending job and the growing tent cities that populate Chicago’s via ducts. I think about the endless headlines about young lives lost by violence, about the numerous hungry and homeless people who populate busy intersections. That each time I pass them, I lose part of my soul. Making the city livable for all its residents has “the fierce urgency of now,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, and “time for vigorous and positive action.” Because “there is such a thing as being too late.”

A lovely edited version of this article is published on The Progressive website. Please check it out: Job Number One for Chicago’s New City Council: Housing

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