As Chicago’s five-year housing plan expires, local organizers call for rent subsidies

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Members of the Chicago Housing Justice League want increased access to safe, affordable housing and greater protection for people from the 30,000 evictions filed in Chicago every year. The league  calls for rent subsidies and local input to troubleshoot the problem.

The league and dozens of other housing organizations on Wednesday released recommendations for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, aiming to influence the city’s forthcoming five-year housing plan.

Recent Chicago housing developments are “glass boxes, looming down, of people that live self-contained lives trying to avoid interacting with anybody else, if they can help it,” said Frank Avellone, senior attorney and policy coordinator Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. That’s the opposite of an effort to strengthen renter rights and improve eviction protection, he said.​

Chicago’s current five-year housing plan expires Dec. 31, and city officials are expected to release a new plan by the end of 2018. The replacement, the sixth plan issued since 1993, will guide Chicago housing policies through 2023, affecting all 77 neighborhoods and nearly 2.7 million residents.

“The city has finished presenting its vision to developers,” said Michael Saelens, CHJL media coordinator. “We have come up with these 19 separate recommendations basically as our take on how the city should be going.”

Approximately 50 representatives of a cross-section of Chicago neighborhoods attended a CHJL town hall meeting Aug. 1. Most of them said they had never participated in developing previous five-year plans. LCBH members in January established the CHJL to promote equitable housing in the Chicago area, consists of 37 member organizations, mostly neighborhood community groups.

LCBH, which provides free legal service to renters, originally was not involved with the five-year plan. But members agreed to engage in the process when they saw an opportunity “to effectuate some kind of meaningful change,” Avellone said. One of the group’s primary objectives is addressing the thousands of “unjust evictions” that occur annually, he added, although possible solutions are murky and surrounded by contentious debate.

“By one rough estimate, the affordable housing problem is a $26 billion problem,” Avellone said. “There are many good programs that the city has to promote housing. They are, nevertheless, grossly under-resourced.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel previously announced five action categories for the new housing plan, including avoiding resident displacement, preserving affordability, expanding affordable rental housing, expanding homeownership opportunities and addressing chronic homelessness. The CHJL recommendations reflect the mayor’s priorities, Saelens said.

CHJL members also added a sixth category they call “democratizing decision making,” hoping to address their concerns about community participation in housing developments,  Avellone said.

“What your community feels like at the ground level to you and your children ought to be something that you have a decision in making, not just something that gets thrust upon you,” he said. “We need people-centered policies, some of which cost money, some of which don’t, to attack our problems in the United States from a different vantage point.”

City officials allocated $1.33 billion for the 2014-2018 housing plan. The CHJL recommendations advocate for increased spending on five-year plan programs, a move that would increase the city’s commitment by millions of dollars.

“We don’t need the white knight of big money to come in and put in granite countertops and jack up your rent by $400 a month,” Avellone said. “Development is possible without displacement.”

Some recommendations, such as tripling resources for the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund that provides rental subsidies, include broad suggestions for funding. Others, however, don’t specify means of financial support.

Numerous CHJL members expressed concerns  that such financial demands could inhibit adoption of the recommendations.

One recommendation to preserve housing affordability involves a $375 million investment during the next five years to preserve 5,000 existing rental units for low-income families, especially for current renters in gentrifying areas.

Another would require the city to fund a $25 million  lead remediation project to improve 2,500 housing units in the next three to five years. The city is replacing some lead pipes under the street in an effort to eliminate water contamination, but the current action plan leaves the problem partially unsolved, said Ernest Lukasik, a housing organizer at the Northwest Side Housing Center.

“The mayor has said that from the curb to the house will be the homeowner’s expense,” he said, adding that although pipes from the curb to the house are on homeowners’ private property, existing property taxes are already crippling. “I don’t know what a homeowner could do to make $5,000 to $15,000 — and that’s how much it’s going to cost to replace those leaded pipes.”

But some suggested improvements, such as strategies to improve neighborhood stability, require no financial inputs.

City committees currently are reviewing the plan, which Saelens said should be open for public comment by October. However, budget planning the same month, along with the upcoming election, likely will push the plan’s approval closer to the end of the year, he added.

CHJL leaders plan to host a South Side town hall meeting Aug. 15.

“I don’t think that anybody in the League has any illusion that these 19 recommendations are going to get adopted,” Avellone said. “If we can get two or three main ones done, that would be great. What we’re looking for is for our elected officials and institutions to meet the citizenry halfway.”

Photo at top: Local organizations’ recommendations for Chicago’s new five-year housing plan include creating and maintaining affordable apartments. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)