Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa visits Chicago Newsroom this week for an animated conversation about affordable housing, City Council reorganization, police reform, elected school board legislation and plenty more. We began with the proposal to build an all-affordable hundred-unit building, called the Emmett Street project, in his 35th Ward. It would sit immediately adjacent to the Kedzie exit from the Logan Square Blue Line stop. The project has a lot of support in his ward, as was demonstrated at a community meeting last month that drew about 500 people, overwhelmingly in favor of the development. It would be built on an existing city-owned parking lot, adjacent to the Blue Line, a location that was very attractive to commercial developers.
“There was a plan to issue a request for proposals to sell the land for the top dollar that the city could fetch,” the Alderman begins, “and then allow a developer to build a transit-oriented development at that site that would include maybe 30% affordability with the rest market rate housing, condominiums and a large retail complex. You know on the first and second floors of the building was kind of the concept that was being tossed around.”
So an alderman was proposing donating a huge city lot that could have fetched big bucks on the open market. “And so they said, ‘Alderman,’ and I’m not going to name names but someone said, ‘Alderman the city needs revenue. We need to sell that piece of land for the top dollar that we can fetch and then we need to make sure that it’s on the property tax rolls, that it’s bringing in sales tax revenue and I said, ‘Look that’s a legitimate public policy concern, but another legitimate public policy concern is that we need affordable housing, particularly neighborhoods that are facing displacement like Logan Square. And here we have a city-owned land that we can give to a non-profit affordable housing developer or to CHA to develop 100% affordable housing.’”
Several years passed, but eventually Mayor Emanuel agreed to the plan.
“City-wide there is a desperate need for affordable housing,” Ramirez-Rosa continues. “About one in two Chicagoans I believe was the last number I saw. Don’t quote me on that, but I think close to one out of two Chicagoans are rent stressed, which means that they are paying more than 30%. So many Chicagoans are paying 50-60% of their pay in rent.”
The Alderman expresses optimism that this and other projects will move forward after Mayor Lightfoot takes office. “I’m really excited that Mayor Elect Lightfoot has committed so clearly that she wants to build more affordable housing, and I know from my friends that work at affordable housing that are serving on the transition team it seems like they are cooking up something really good, so I look forward to hearing about exactly what Mayor-Elect Lightfoot would like to see in regards of building more affordable housing.”
We broaden the discussion to the Transit-Oriented Development trend in general. Parts of Milwaukee Avenue just outside his ward in Logan Square have seen stunning growth in recent years since the enactment of TOD ordinances that allow big, dense buildings with almost no parking. But the Alderman says some new studies are beginning to cast doubt on the value of these developments, especially as they affect less-affluent, displaced residents. A study of similar developments in Rome, he says, found that the big, dense buildings simply converted working communities into luxury markets.
Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance is supposed to moderate that trend, and Ramirez-Rosa says it has raised some money and forced some developers to add some affordable units to their buildings, but it’s not addressing the massive issue of displacement, and there’s also a big drawback. “At the end of the day the ARO is predicated upon things getting built that need a zoning change. And so if they don’t need a zoning change, if they are not using TIF money the ARO is not triggered,” he explains.
In addition, developers sometimes demonstrate that they don’t really agree with the concept of allowing displaced residents to occupy their ARO units. “I’ve actually heard stories of the ARO units that were built in Logan Square that developers actually went up and down to the bars in Logan Square and asked the bartenders, asked the servers to apply to live in these units because their income met the requirements. And that’s great. That’s wonderful. I’m happy for every single individual that was able to get one of those affordable units but it’s not providing the housing that we need for families that are being displaced.”
Turning to Council reorganization as the new members and Mayor Lightfoot are seated, the Alderman says he believes there’s a chance for a slightly more leftward movement in the Council.
“So there’s 11 members of the Progressive Caucus in the existing council,” he explains. “Unfortunately two of them were not re-elected. That was John Arena and Tony Foulkes. And then Alderman Ricardo Munoz this is his last term but he was replaced in the City Council by Mike Rodriguez who will be joining the Progressive Caucus. And so there’s nine wards that currently have a member of the Progressive Caucus, that will continue to have a member of the Progressive Caucus. And then it looks like anywhere from seven to nine other aldermen may be joining. I certainly hope that they do so. And then there’s new folks like Maria Hadden in the 49thWard, Matt Martin in the 47thWard, Rossana Rodriguez in the 33rdWard and Byron Sigcho Lopez in the 25thWard, Jeannette Taylor in the 20thWard, Daniel La Spata in the 1stWard. Andre Vasquez in the 40thWard. There’s a number of newly-elected aldermen that have stated their interest in joining the Progressive Caucus. So it’s going to be an exciting time to see that growth and you know Mayor Elect Lori Lightfoot has a lot of stances that are to the left of Rahm Emanuel. I think that we’re going to see a lot of forward movement on a lot of important issues.”
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa didn’t support, or presumably vote for, Lori Lightfoot. He was an early and strong supporter of Toni Preckwinkle. But he can adapt to the new power structure.
“We now have Mayor Lightfoot and if she’s going to act on all of the progressive policies that she said she would do when she was running for mayor I’m her first vote, right? So she’s going to erase the gang database, I’m her first vote to do that. If she wants to remove the carve-outs from the welcoming city ordinance to make sure we are a true sanctuary, I’m her first vote to do that. If she wants to move forward an aggressive policy to build affordable housing throughout the entire City of Chicago and make sure that we are building it in the far Northwest side, that we are building it all across the City of Chicago I’m her first vote to do that. So I think now you know Lori has to look at who are her 26 votes, how does she accomplish that. That could mean shaking up some of the committee chairmanships but it also could mean not shaking that up, because again so many of the committee chairs have said very clearly I will follow what the mayor says.”
A key element of that restructuring is determining Committee chairmanships. And the most powerful of them all is former chair Ed Burke’s Finance Committee.
“At one point we had Alderman Beale come forward and say that he had 31 votes to be Chair of Finance,” Ramirez-Rosa muses. “Tom Tunney has come forward and said, “I have 26 votes to be Chair of Finance.” Now Scott Waguespack says that he has 25 votes. Someone is bluffing because the math does not add up. You know my thought is that Scott Waguespack would be an excellent Chair of the Finance Committee. I’ve said that before. I feel strongly about that. But if I had to put my money on who actually has the votes of those three based on the conversations I’ve had I do believe it is Alderman Tunney.”
“Tom and I have disagreed on a lot of different issues,” he continues. We disagreed on issues relating to the minimum wage, on issues related to fair scheduling, on workers’ rights. You know recently I did speak with Alderman Tunney and he said that he has evolved on those issues and that he understands that it’s not 1999 and that the workers laws and compensation need to increase in the City of Chicago…So I think again this is where you know Mayor Elect Lightfoot and the direction that she wants the City Council to go in I think that’s when that becomes a very important factor in all this.”
We end our conversation with some talk about police reform and the recent vote to move forward with a new police and fire academy on the far west side. The alderman says it shouldn’t be all about buildings.
“What the research shows and what the recommendations from the Department of Justice reflect is that it’s about curriculum,” he explains. “It’s about what it is that’s actually being taught and most important it’s about accountability. Study after study after study has found that if you want to root out racist policing practices, if you want to address police violence and misconduct, what is needed is accountability. And that ties into issues of the FOP contract which limit the city’s ability to hold police officers accountable. It’s also tied into oversight and Mayor Elect Lightfoot I’m very happy to say is in support of bringing about civilian oversight of the police.”
But the vote to move forward has been cast, and the existing academies are being sold.
“Unfortunately I think Chicago has a very long history of being one big real estate deal,” he laments. “We saw it when UIC was built and what Daley sought to do by tearing down tens of thousands of working peoples’ homes. And I think we also saw it when the existing police academy (which is by Ashland and Jackson), I went to Whitney Young so – right there. And part of the rationale about building it there at that point in time was – let’s put a strong police force just west of the Loop and then let’s allow that to help be an engine of displacement, of gentrification, right? And I think that similarly now that’s a very valuable piece of land. It’s a very valuable piece of land in the West Loop. So Rahm Emanuel gets to sell that piece of land, right, having played the role that it was intended to play and now where do they move it? Even further west, right? And where do they place it? Right next to Oak Park. So my thought is that you know it’s the same story we’ve seen time and time again in the City of Chicago which is the city is using the institutions that it has, is using the dollars that it has to help spur and bring about gentrification…And there was no conversation about how much would it cost to refurbish and update the existing facility. Would that be less than $100-million? None of those conversations took place and so then I have to think about well then what is the motive? Why were those conversations not taking place?”
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Read the full transcript here: CN Transcript May 9 2019