Save for a single tree, the lot at 3230 W. Armitage is completely bare. It's plenty big, wide enough for two or maybe three brownstones, but there's nothing there but for a thin layer of snow covering the pitted, uneven earth.
But the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation has grand plans for the tract. It's set to be a part of Zapata Apartments, a planned four-building complex spanning three-quarters of a mile of Armitage Avenue in Logan Square. The buildings will be green, amenity-rich, community-oriented and most importantly of all, affordable.
After cutting through a maze of bureaucratic red tape, Bickerdike has gotten zoning approval for the projects. Now, it's a matter of financing the project.
You might think that a green affordable housing complex being built on vacant lots would be precisely the kind of thing the city might want to throw money behind. The reason that it's not is the source of heated controversy, and the impetus behind a divisive ordinance coming before the City Council today.
The City of Chicago has a mechanism designed for directing funds to blighted properties. It's called a "tax-increment financing district," or TIF. TIFs basically work like this: the city freezes property tax revenues from a certain area. If property values (and, hence, property tax revenues) go up in that area, the surplus is siphoned off into a TIF. That money can then be used for development projects essentially at the mayor's discretion.
These funds are ostensibly for development projects in downtrodden parts of the city, where free-market forces might not otherwise invest. Mayor Daley represented that line to Chicago Public Radio in a 2009 interview. "Most of [the TIF money] is pledged for economic development in depressed areas, to bring jobs back or keep jobs there," he said.
It turns out that TIFs are largely serving just the opposite purpose. Only about three to four percent of TIF dollars go to affordable housing. 43 percent of the money went to glitzy developments in three downtown wards. And that's no chump change, either: as the Chicago Reader has diligently reported, TIFs took in $1.5 billion between 2004 and 2008.
Plenty of good-government groups have sought to reform the way TIFs operate. But one of the most powerful pushes has been from a group called the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition.
The coalition, made up of nine community groups and three unions, is lobbying the City Council for passage of an ordinance of the same name. The Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, as it first came before the council, would have mandated that 20 percent of TIF dollars be spent on affordable housing each year.
"If a mandate like Sweet Home Chicago was already in place, the Zapata Apartments would be a great place for that," said Lissette Castañeda, a former Board president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a group that has lobbied for Zapata. If the ordinance was on the books, Castañeda said, Bickerdike could approach the city and "say hey, this is really beneficial to both of us." That is, it would be fulfilling the city's legally required mandate to spend on affordable housing, and funding a project that's good for the neighborhood.
Sounds like a win for everyone -- except, that is, for the administration, which wants to keep as much control over its TIFs as possible. So as the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance was moving forward through the City Council (it passed committee, had 26 of 50 aldermen signed on as co-sponsors), City Hall struck back.
When the Coalition tried to pass a few friendly amendments to the bill, to address legal concerns shared by some on the Council, many one-time supporters -- Alds. Lona Lane, Michelle Harris and John Rice were among the names mentioned -- suddenly voted the amendment package down, apparently under pressure from above. Meanwhile, with the backing of the Mayor and powerful Finance Committee chair Ed Burke, Ald. Patrick O'Connor put forth a different version of the ordinance, this time with a "goal" of 15 percent spending on affordable housing, instead of a mandated 20. (At time of publication, none of the above-mentioned aldermen has responded to requests for comment.)
"It basically guts the whole thing. It's meaningless," said a frustrated Julie Dworkin, policy director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. CCH is a member of the Sweet Home Chicago coalition. Not only does it swap the mandate with a goal, she said, "it allows them to count any money, not just TIF dollars, including federal and state money. So basically they will have met [the goal] before they do anything at all.
"It's total window dressing."
The problem for the Sweet Home Chicago coalition is that the Council will have two options today. One is the original, un-amended Coalition bill, which everyone acknowledges needs fixing. The other, according to SHC supporters, is window-dressing, supported by powerful interests with no rigid standards for the city to meet.
The third option, one that Dworkin sees as likely but unfortunate, is "this parliamentary move called 'defer and publish,'" which basically buys more time for the bill. During that time, supporters plan to lean on waffling aldermen, spread the word in their wards, picket their offices, do whatever it takes to fight the countervailing winds from City Hall. They've gotten some support: the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized on behalf of the ordinance, and mayoral hopefuls James Meeks and Miguel del Valle have both expressed their hope that the bill will pass.
Meanwhile, though, Bickerdike continues to seek backers for Zapata, and 3230 West Armitage still stands empty, another eyesore in a neighborhood that's struggling to fix them up.