Chicago Sun-Times: Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund honors activist Doug Dobmeyer

Kudos to Mr. Dobmeyer, president of the CCH Board (1985-87) when he and our founder, the late Les Brown, launched CCH’s 10-year Presidential Towers campaign.

By Mark Brown, Columnist

Doug Dobmeyer has decided it’s time to cut back on his workload.

Surely you recognize the name.

For four decades, Dobmeyer has been one of Chicago’s most prolific and oft-quoted community activists, advocating on behalf of everything from low-income housing to welfare rights and against everything from gambling expansion to the death penalty.

Whether shaming public officials or guilt-tripping journalists, Dobmeyer has never been one to shy away from sticking his nose and his strongly held views into the thick of the public debate.

What really sets Dobmeyer apart from your ordinary rabble-rousing organizer, though, is the remarkable degree to which his efforts have resulted in concrete accomplishments.

On Wednesday, Dobmeyer will be honored for perhaps the most important of those achievements, the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund, on whose board he has served since its formation in 1989.

The fund, which provides rental subsidies to 2,800 individuals and families across the city each year, was created in large part in response to a relentless years-long protest led by Dobmeyer and the late homeless advocate Les Brown over favored government treatment of the Presidential Towers apartment complex.

The honor comes as Dobmeyer, 63, is stepping down from the trust fund’s board, a partial concession to the challenges of an ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis.

“I can still do work but I can’t walk very well,” said Dobmeyer, who needs two canes to get around these days but sounded as ornery as ever during a phone call from a bus on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Lest his opponents take his health issues as a sign of weakness, Dobmeyer characteristically offered this warning, “I tell you I’m quite capable to take on anyone.”

It’s that brusque self-assuredness that has long been a Dobmeyer trademark.

“Beneath that gruff exterior is a gruff interior,” Chicago attorney Thomas J. McNulty says with a laugh. McNulty is president of the Low-Income Housing Trust Fund’s board and the only other remaining original member.

In those early days, McNulty and Dobmeyer were cast as adversaries in determining the direction of the fledgling trust fund, created with a $3.2 million contribution pried from the controversial Presidential Towers development, which received federal financing without the normal requirement to set aside apartments for low-income tenants.

But that wariness soon gave way to mutual respect, and now McNulty salutes Dobmeyer for being an “ardent and consistent voice” in support of affordable housing for the poor.

Part of what earns Dobmeyer street cred is that he’s always on the side of the angels and as most folks know, the angels don’t pay very well.

Dobmeyer has been working on housing issues since shortly after coming to Chicago to serve as a VISTA volunteer in 1971.

He landed in Uptown, working first with the Hull House Association and then as director of R.E.S.T., which at the time operated a pair of homeless shelters.

“My job was to keep people from freezing to death,” he said.

“Every day was a fight with the Yuppies in the community who wanted to rid the neighborhood of poor people,” recalls Dobmeyer bluntly, the “Yuppies” obviously having a different point of view.

From his work with the homeless grew Dobmeyer’s other big achievement: helping establish the Lakefront SRO Corporation.

From its inception turning the old More­land Hotel into a rehabbed single-room occupancy residence called the Harold Washington Apartments, Lakefront went on to develop or manage 1,000 SRO units before being taken over by Mercy Housing.

Dobmeyer said everyone told him the SRO idea would never work, but that all changed when Mayor Richard M. Daley got behind it.

“Over time, I have become better at working with people as opposed to always raising hell,” Dobmeyer said. “I know how to do both.”

While never a Daley supporter, “I never had a problem with what Daley did on housing all the years he was in office,” said Dobmeyer, who was twice reappointed by the former mayor to 10-year terms on the unpaid Trust Fund board.

Daley’s push to bring a casino to Chicago was a different matter, one that now also pits Dobmeyer against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Dobmeyer thinks a Chicago Tribune poll this week showing a slippage of public support for a Chicago casino is at least partly due to the tireless opposition from his Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago.

I still don’t think there’s much Dobmeyer can do to stop a casino if the stars finally align in Springfield, but I can promise he won’t shy from the fight.

For more on the Presidential Towers campaign, read this piece by the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce magazine (2004).