By Matthew Blake

November 10, 2010


A proposal to set aside about $100 million annually in property tax money toward affordable housing has found a second life in the Chicago City Council and could go up for a vote on November 17.

Assisted by Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) has apparently worked out a deal that will force a vote on the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance, legislation that would set aside 20 percent of the city’s Tax Increment Finance (TIF) revenue toward the creation of affordable units.

The ups and downs of the affordable housing ordinance show how difficult it can be for the City Council to even consider important policy proposals — in this case one that could help neighborhoods like the South Loop deal with increased foreclosures and rising vacancies.

“It would seem a no-brainer that the city council would set aside some TIF money for affordable housing,” said Rebel Cole, a real estate and finance professor at DePaul University. “It’s a laudable, easy goal that makes eminent sense.”

After Burnett (whose 27th ward includes part of West Town) wrote the ordinance back in March, it was referred to a joint finance and housing/real estate committee, chaired by Ed Burke and Ray Saurez.

A bit lost in the intricacies of the legislative process is an ordinance that could increase the city’s affordable housing stock, but also limit the mayor and aldermen’s flexibility in using TIF money. In 2009, the city collected $500 million in TIF money. If the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance became law, about $100 million a year would go to developing and rehabbing affordable housing units — mostly rental spaces for families that make less than $37,000 a year.

TIF money is intended for neighborhood development, though the Daley administration and aldermen who preside over scores of specifically designated TIF districts have total discretion over how this money is spent.

Aldermen in support of the ordinance contend that only four percent of TIF money currently goes to affordable housing.

TIF money would be directed to neighborhoods that have had a high number of foreclosure filings, an indication that residents cannot afford their housing and that there are a high number of vacancies. The Loop, Near South Side, and Near West Side are the neighborhoods with the greatest increase in foreclosure rates from 2009 to 2010, according to data compiled by the Woodstock Institute.

“Certain communities with foreclosures and vacancy rates could use an affordable housing stimulus,” says Jim Shilling, chair of the DePaul University Real Estate studies program.

Burke and Saurez last week promised to hold a joint committee vote on whether to send the legislation to the full City Council, according to Julie Dworkin, a member of the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition.

Made up of nine community groups and three labor unions, the coalition has worked with Burnett to keep the ordinance alive.

Dworkin says the vote will be held by Nov. 15. If the ordinance passes out of committee a full council vote will be held Nov. 17.

With more than half the 50 person council on board as co-sponsors, the housing proposal seems likely to pass.

One wrinkle exists with the city’s Dept. of Community Development looking to propose an alternative ordinance.

“The city is working with aldermen to try to develop an ordinance that deals with TIFs and affordable housing,” says Susan Massel, DCD spokeswoman. No details were given.

It is unclear if or how the Daley administration will affect the promised committee vote. Sweet Home Chicago advocates, though, claim that the mayor is at the root of the legislative bottleneck.

“The ordinance has stalled because the administration is opposing it and they asked the committee chairs not to call it for a vote,” said Dworkin. “Action is being taken now because we threatened to do the motion to discharge and [the mayor’s office] didn’t want us to do it.”

The motion to discharge is a rare procedural move that Burnett evoked last week – it means that the full City Council takes a vote on whether to eject an ordinance from its relevant committees — in this case housing/real estate and finance. In this case Fioretti was in charge of writing the motion and forgot to include language to eject the ordinance from the finance committee as well as the housing/real estate committee.

Following that gaff, aldermen quickly scrambled to put together a Plan B. With the looming threat of the motion to discharge, they persuaded Burke and Saurez to commit to a committee vote.

“If they do not keep their commitment,” Dworkin says. “We can still do a motion to discharge.”

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