Bring Chicago Home: Community leaders rally outside ‘State of the City’ address, call on mayor’s broken promise on homelessness

Before Mayor Lori Lightfoot revealed her projected budget deficit in a “State of the City” address, members of the Bring Chicago Home coalition rallied Thursday outside her Harold Washington Library Center event, again calling on the mayor to keep the promise she made to the coalition during her campaign.

In recent weeks through the media and communications from her staff, Mayor Lightfoot revealed her intention to shrink the city’s budget deficit in part by raising the city’s Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) – a one-time fee applied to real estate purchases – on property sales that exceed $1 million. If she does this, Mayor Lightfoot would raid the same revenue source she had promised to use to combat homelessness and a dire shortage of affordable housing.

Mayor Lightfoot told reporters Wednesday, after a “first 100-days” celebration, that she is still committed to addressing homelessness, but she has proposed no timeline or dedicated funding alternative in lieu of raiding the RETT funding. The mayor’s reversal could effectively derail an ordinance favored by Bring Chicago Home (BCH) that Lightfoot vowed, during her campaign, to champion.

Under the BCH proposal, which has garnered support from 31 aldermen, 70% of revenues of the $100 million-plus generated from a RETT increase would be allocated to programs that alleviate homelessness. The remaining 30% was to be designated for creation of affordable housing.

“We are insisting that the city create a dedicated revenue stream to address homelessness, at a scale that will have a meaningful impact,” said Flora Koppel, executive director for Unity Parenting & Counseling, a homeless youth provider active in the BCH coalition.

“In Los Angeles, they created a revenue stream for homelessness that will bring in almost $5 billion over the next 10 years,” said Ms. Koppel. “In San Francisco, they recently enacted a measure to bring in $250 million to $350 million every year. The proposal Mayor Lightfoot had promised to support would bring in $100 million to $150 million a year – without it, we will never see a significant impact for the more 86,000 people who are now homeless in Chicago.”

The friction over Lightfoot’s changing stance came as representatives of the more than 70 community groups in the Bring Chicago Home coalition demonstrated outside the Harold Washington Library event, voicing their disappointment in the mayor.

BCH members noted that, as recently as a month ago, Lightfoot told the media that she intended to collaborate with them on a plan to institute a dedicated funding source for programs to mitigate homelessness – even after she acknowledged that she might seek to allocate RETT revenues differently. But in subsequent weeks, the mayor’s office announced plans to seek state legislative approval for a RETT increase used only to defray the budget deficit.

“We understand the city is experiencing a financial crisis.  But homelessness in Chicago is a crisis, too, and it has never been adequately addressed in good fiscal times or bad ones,” said Fidel Williams, community engagement manager at Renaissance Social Services, a BCH member organization.

“We thought Mayor Lightfoot’s would be different than past administrations because she pledged to make this a priority,” Mr. Williams added. “She needs to recognize that part of the budget hole is from decades of underfunding for homelessness and that committing these dollars is meeting a critical budget need in the city. According to our polling, voters in Chicago think addressing homelessness should be a top priority and that previous mayors have not done enough.”

In a June letter to Lightfoot, aldermen who characterized themselves as “strong supporters of a solution to dramatically reduce homelessness in Chicago” asked the mayor to back the BCH proposal.

“We understand that you are balancing many priorities, but your shared interest in reducing homelessness gives us hope that a plan that would finally achieve this long-sought goal is within reach,” the aldermanic letter stated.

In order to raise the RETT, the City Council must get permission from voters via a citywide referendum. A resolution to get the referendum on the March 2020 ballot is currently sitting in the joint Rules-Finance Committee. The BCH proposal received commitments from both committee chairmen, Ald. Michelle Harris and Ald. Scott Waguespack, to hold a joint hearing before the City Council’s next meeting, Sept. 18.

If adopted into law, the BCH measure would remedy a gross shortage of funds that Chicago assigns to combatting homelessness. Chicago’s current $15.5 million annual expenditure relief ranks near the bottom of the 10 U.S. cities with the largest homeless populations.