New housing department: solution to crisis or election ploy?
August 3, 2018

By Lisa R. Jenkins

Affordable housing has been a need of Chicago residents throughout the City’s history, but that need has reached crisis proportions since the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) demolished many public housing developments between 1996 and 2010 as part of its Plan for Transformation. Subsequent City promises of replacement housing mostly have gone unrealized.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on June 26 proposed the creation of a new Chicago Department of Housing to implement the strategies outlined in the City’s next Five-Year Housing Plan (2019-2023). The mayor is calling on the plan’s steering and advisory committee to create a new and transformative vision for housing as a core component of all neighborhoods.

According to the mayor, the new department will reflect those targeted goals as it addresses Chicago residents’ housing needs. Some wonder, however, if creating the department is a pre-election ploy made necessary by the city’s diminishing stock of affordable housing.

During Mayor Richard M. Daley’s final term in office, 2007 through 2011, the CHA averaged a little more than 840 units of housing built annually. In Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first year of office, that number continued to fall—to 424—to about half of those built the previous year. In the following years, that number dropped to 112, then 88, and then 40 in 2014.

Daley also eliminated the City’s previous Department of Housing, placing its functions under the Department of Planning and Development.

So Mayor Emanuel now promises to bring City efforts to make housing more affordable and accessible for all Chicagoans under one roof. “Every resident of Chicago deserves a great place to call home, and this new department will give the City a specialized resource to ensure housing remains affordable for anyone who wants to live, work, and raise a family in Chicago,” he said.

When asked if housing advocates think resolving the affordable housing issue plaguing the city is an obtainable goal, Sharon Legenza, executive director of Housing Action Illinois, said members of her group believe it is possible to create a Chicago—and an Illinois—where everyone has a good, stable home that they can afford.

Strengthen, expand programs

“We know what works and have programs to create a variety of affordable homes that meet different groups’ needs, including permanent supportive housing, veterans housing, and down payment assistance programs,” Legenza said. “We just need the political and community will and the investment to strengthen and expand these programs.”

Housing Action Illinois is a non-profit working to protect and expand affordable housing.

Ja’Mal Green, a candidate for mayor who is executive director of the Majostee Allstars, a nonprofit that works to represent Chicago’s most underresourced communities, said, “Affordable housing is such a key issue in our city. Rahm Emanuel has not been the best leader of CHA, which has had a $400 million surplus— but tens of thousands are still displaced from their homes. His move to resurrect the Department of Housing is political and it is a slap in the face to Chicago residents.

“We need a mayor who is going to hit this problem head on and designate a large sum of money to make sure that people have housing and that people can afford to stay in their homes—not just when it is political season,” Green added.

He noted that, “The city needs rent control” and accused the mayor of “strategically gentrifying communities throughout Chicago. The City of Chicago should not buy Rahm’s political ploys for votes and understand that we have to move our city forward with new leadership.”

Bridget Hayman, director of communications for Access Living, would like the city’s complex housing issues resolved and hopes the new department can make real change by giving affordable, accessible housing the attention it long has needed and deserves.

Access Living promotes independence for people living with disabilities through various means, including affordable housing.

Hayman said, “Resurrecting the department is a good opportunity for the mayor and the City to—finally—make things right for Chicagoans with disabilities who have long endured the challenge of securing accessible and affordable housing.”

With a renewed focus, the department presumably could address large scale solutions for important issues such as Chicago’s housing affordability crisis, Hayman noted, saying its first order of business should be to address the federal complaint Access Living filed on May 14, 2018, which outlined how, for decades, the City’s affordable housing programs ignored the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act. As a result, thousands
of affordable units that should have been accessible simply were not, Hayman noted.

Political issue

Housing supporters always welcome more attention and time spent on protecting and expanding affordable housing. “We want all candidates to constantly be thinking and talking about this, and we think that housing should be a cornerstone of every political campaign platform,” Legenza added.

Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition 2018 Out of Reach report shows that, to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago metro area without spending more than 30% of his or her income on housing costs, a worker has to earn $22.69 per hour—almost twice the minimum wage in Chicago.

The City, developers, and community partners must work together on a problem as large as affordable housing, Legenza said. She noted that, as a statewide coalition, Housing Action Illinois believes in the value of collaboration, and if a department can coordinate effectively and support efforts of groups working to expand housing opportunities, that would be helpful.

In recent years, through the Department of Planning and Development, the City has focused on housing only as related to community development. “Although we see the value of integrated community plans, the creation of affordable housing is a vital and complex issue that requires specific focus,” Hayman said.

The mayor believes the department will allow the City to meet the housing market where it is in every neighborhood, partnering with the development and advocacy community to use existing tools and create new strategies as needed. A statement from the City noted that each affordable housing project requires a unique group of incentives, such as land, financing, credits, and affordability requirements, to achieve the targeted goal.

“The new housing department is a proactive step the City can take to ensure we have a dedicated resource, laser focused on supporting access to housing across Chicago,” Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said. “I look forward to working to build a new department that can innovate and strengthen Chicago’s policies to support affordability and address the city’s constantly changing housing needs.”

The new department will support the recently announced Opportunity Investment Fund to preserve existing affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, and help residents buy affordable homes built on vacant lots through the City’s Building Affordable Neighborhood Homes program.

With $5 million in seed money from the City and $25 million in foundation and private investments, Emanuel hopes the Opportunity Investment Fund will provide developers with assistance to buy and renovate existing, functioning rental buildings in gentrifying city neighborhoods.

The precise budget for the Department of Housing will not be known until the mayor outlines the structure and funding in his pre-election budget this fall.

More about Access Living can be found at www.accessliving.org. For the City Department of Planning and Development, log on to www.cityofchicago.org/dpd. For Housing Action Illinois, log on to housingactionil.org. Log on to www.majosteeallstars.com for information about the Majostee Allstars. More about the National Low Income Housing Coalition can be found at http://nlihc.org.