Leftward shift in City Council could put new force behind affordable housing push

A new class of Democratic Socialist aldermen will test their “housing for all” platform before a big and fragmented council
By Alex Nitkin | April 05, 2019 02:00PM

From left: Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Jeanette Taylor, and Daniel La Spata with Chicago’s City Hall (Credit: iStock and Facebook)

Three days after a group of self-described Democratic Socialists declared victory in their respective races for alderman, plenty of questions remain about the looming impact of a possible City Council “Socialist Caucus” on development across the city. Chief among them is whether they will form a caucus at all.

But the presence of at least five Socialist council members — six, if 33rd Ward challenger Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez clings to her 64-vote lead over Alderman Deb Mell, — is sure to elevate a ream of thorny policies tied to the Democratic Socialists of America’s platform of “Housing for All.”

The new members could throw momentum behind efforts to crank up the city’s Affordability Requirements Ordinance, deepen the Chicago Housing Authority’s involvement in new residential developments and even require Community Benefits Agreements for big projects going forward.

“Across the city we’re seeing a clear mandate for change,” said Alderman-elect Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who next month will take over for scandal-plagued Alderman Danny Solis. “We have to be able to have a citywide discussion on how to create more affordable housing, and there are concrete ordinances that have been proposed by different housing advocates that can help get us there.”

Specifically, Sigcho-Lopez said he would work with colleagues to try and revive the “Development for All” ordinance, which was proposed in June by a group of eight aldermen but never made it out of the council’s committee on housing and real estate. Alderman Joe Moore (49th), chairman of that committee, was ousted by challenger Maria Hadden in the February election.

The ordinance would boost the minimum allotment of affordable units in any new development seeking a zoning change up to 30 or even 50 percent, depending on where it’s proposed, up from the current 10 percent threshold. It would also extend the requirement to new residential buildings with fewer than 10 units, currently the minimum size that triggers the rule.

A separate ordinance, also introduced to the council in June, would expedite approval of affordable housing proposed in wards where less than 10 percent of housing units are designated affordable. That proposal also died in Moore’s committee.

But even with a sixfold spike in membership, the Socialist group wouldn’t be able to turn “housing for all” from slogan to reality unless it can drum up at least 26 votes in the 50-member council. The council’s existing Progressive Caucus has 11 members, and many of its landmark proposals, like overhauling the city’s tax increment financing system, remain on the shelf.

It all depends on how many aldermen Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot can wrangle in support of her agenda, according to former alderman and City Council historian Dick Simpson. Previous mayors have traditionally hand-picked leaders of the council’s powerful committees on zoning, finance and housing, but the responsibility technically falls to the council itself.

“The most important vote that gets taken over the next four years will be the first one, when committee chairmen and members are appointed,” Simpson said. “That not only will decide how zoning decisions are made, but it will set the tone for what the council wants to accomplish.”

And if new aldermen want to fulfill their promises to build more affordable housing around the city, they’ll have to figure out how to dole out two multimillion-dollar pots of money that are growing faster than they can be dispersed, Simpson said. One is the surplus budget of the Chicago Housing Authority, which is taking a piecemeal approach to developing mixed-income housing complexes with private developers like Brinshore and Hunt Companies. The other is the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, which developers pay into in order to include less on-site affordable units in their projects.

“The problem is that it’s very difficult to write a law that gets more affordable housing built” as long as the city seeks private developers as partners on new housing, Simpson said. “You have to figure out what kinds of carrots and sticks are at your disposal, so you can actually make it profitable enough for the private sector to get involved.”

Even if the new aldermen can’t force changes to city code, they’ll have wide latitude to influence development in their own wards. Lightfoot has railed against the long-standing practice of aldermanic privilege, the unwritten rule that gives aldermen the final say in any proposal on their own turf. But some incoming aldermen have suggested they would embrace that power in service of their winning agendas.

Democratic Socialist candidate Daniel La Spata, who unseated incumbent Alderman Joe Moreno in the rapidly-gentrifying 1st Ward, said he would “negotiate” with developers to get more affordable and family-sized apartments built. And Alderman-elect Jeanette Taylor (20th) has pledged to intervene to stop DL3 Realty’s proposal to demolish and redevelop the Washington Park Bank building in Woodlawn.

Sigcho-Lopez, whose ward includes the 62-acre future site of Related Midwest’s “The 78,” mega-project, told The Real Deal that he would use his newfound muscle to pry more commitments from Related, even though the City Council approved the firm’s master plan for the site late last year.

“This is a project we’re inheriting, and we need to make sure it’s responsive to the needs of residents,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We want to discuss things like affordable housing, local hiring, and the fact that they’re being subsidized with [tax increment financing] opens a whole other conversation about what they can do for the community.”

If the council approves the new 141-acre Roosevelt/Clark TIF district later this month, Sigcho-Lopez said he would ask Related to sign a Community Benefits Agreement for its proposal.

In a statement Friday, a spokesperson for Related Midwest said the company has formed a “Community Inclusion Council led by the top community, civic and business leaders from across Chicago to provide strategic direction, help us implement our programs, establish best practices and monitor our progress” on the The 78.

“We look forward to meeting with Alderman-elect Sigcho-Lopez to discuss our shared commitment to investing in the community,” the statement continued.

In other parts of the city, brokers and property owners are waiting to see who Lightfoot chooses to staff her administration, according to Brian Bernardoni, lobbyist and policy director for the Chicago Association of Realtors. Realtors are ready to work with the incoming government to “find ways that make affordable housing work” for both residents and builders, Bernardoni said.

As for whether the incoming class of aldermen can see their affordable housing policies through, Bernardoni recalled a quote from boxer Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they’re hit in the face.”

“It’s one thing to talk about what you want, as far as development in your ward,” Bernardoni said. “But it’s different when you have to come face-to-face with all different kinds of stakeholders, who may want different things.”