Chicago Tribune: Affordable housing group hopes for funding breakthrough this month

Sweet Home Chicago presses aldermen to spend 20 percent of money from special taxing districts on renovating vacant properties

By John Byrne, Tribune reporter

Affordable housing advocates have spent two years trying and failing to get the Chicago City Council to set aside money for their cause in the face of City Hall opposition, so they’re returning to their activist roots in an attempt to force the issue.

Members of the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition have started protesting at the offices of aldermen who are holding up a vote on their proposal. The change of tactic, they say, was born out of frustration over what they characterize as ongoing obfuscation by Mayor Richard Daley’s administration and his council allies.

Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said her eyes were open to the difficulties the coalition would face in trying to navigate the hidden shoals of the City Council process.

But she also figured Daley’s announcement in September that he won’t seek another term would loosen the council; she said she is convinced several aldermen want to support the plan. Dworkin said she is surprised to find many still seem frightened to cross the mayor.

The group wants the city to set aside 20 percent of the money generated throughout Chicago each year in special property tax areas — called tax increment financing districts — to renovate vacant buildings and convert them into affordable housing.

Daley argues the city uses that money for affordable housing. He has guarded the funds against several attempts by others to divert them to specific programs in the past. Daley also is using some of the money to balance his final budget.

Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, Daley’s unofficial floor leader, countered in November with a proposal that would set 20 percent only as a funding goal for affordable housing, an idea the coalition dismisses as weak.

O’Connor said he is trying to craft a plan that can pass legal muster and get a majority on the council, and he cautioned that the coalition isn’t helping its cause by painting aldermen as obstructionists.

“We’re all supportive of the idea of affordable housing,” he said. “Labeling aldermen as not supporting affordable housing doesn’t help foster further dialogue in a meaningful way.”

A compromise plan that splits the difference — a 10 percent requirement and a 10 percent goal — is languishing in a council committee.

Sweet Home Chicago supporters have been packing the gallery at City Council meetings for months. They also paraded to the microphone at one of Daley’s annual public budget hearings at the South Shore Cultural Center in September, pressing him on the plan until he publicly agreed to let them meet with city officials to try to hammer out an agreement.

Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, a chief supporter of the 20 percent requirement, said he had hoped to keep the atmosphere between coalition members and aldermen congenial so the two sides could reach an accord.

Now, Burnett said, he gets why they have resorted to protests.

“I’ve been holding them off, saying, ‘Let me talk to the administration and my colleagues,'” he said. Coalition members have been understanding, he added, “but they’ve been getting so frustrated, and I think it triggered their activism.”

There have been a handful of events with protesters marching outside aldermen’s offices and putting up signs outside foreclosed homes informing neighbors the properties could have been converted into affordable housing.

Ald. Bernard Stone, 50th, said about 20 people came into his ward office after marching out front, though he wasn’t there at the time. Stone said he wants the money raised by the special taxing districts in his ward to be used in those areas, and the coalition won’t promise that.

Dworkin said the coalition can’t afford to wait to see if a new mayor likes the idea. She hopes the council will vote on the coalition’s plan or the compromise this month, when aldermen would be forced to take a position just ahead of the Feb. 22 municipal elections.

“We still feel like we have a lot of cards left to play,” she said.