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Not-So-Sweet Home Chicago: A Report from the City Council

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The first City Council meeting of the year consisted almost entirely of routine matters -- resolutions, tributes, and appointments, with no debate... that is, until the closing moments. The topic at hand was affordable housing and the legislation to address the issue is known as the "Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance." Few issues are as important to me as the availability of decent, safe housing for all, regardless of income. I have supported and co-sponsored the proposed ordinance from the beginning, but as the latest City Council meeting illustrates, its passage has been anything but easy.

First, though, what is the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance? Quite simply it's an ordinance that would require the City to designate an amount equal to 20 percent of all Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to build, preserve, or rehab housing to be affordable to lower-income families and individuals. Most of the housing would be rental, but for-sale homes could also be included.

According to the Chicago Rehab Network, thirty percent of renters in Chicago pay more than half their monthly income for housing. Yet TIF funds, which total around $500 million a year, are rarely used to address their needs. Instead, historically, only about four percent of TIF funds have been allocated for development of affordable housing.

By designating 20 percent, around $100 million each year would be available to increase housing opportunities for low-income residents across the city. Not only would this amount provide needed affordable housing for individuals and families, but it would help the City acquire and turn around foreclosed properties that have proliferated in every community in the city.

The Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance languished in committee until December when we achieved a major victory and convinced a majority of the committee members to vote to approve the measure and send it to the full Council. The City Council vote on the ordinance was deferred at the December meeting through a parliamentary maneuver.

This month, the ordinance's lead sponsor, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), provided notice the day before the January City Council that he intended to call the matter for a vote. But as he rose at the end of the Council meeting to speak on the proposal, he was interrupted by Ald. Ed Burke, (14th) who declared that Ald. Burnett had not given the City Council sufficient notice of his intention to call the ordinance for a vote. Although 24-hour notice complied with City Council rules, Ald. Burke argued that the State of Illinois's Open Meeting Act required notice 48 hours in advance.

This was clearly parliamentary stalling on the part of Ald. Burke and I immediately rose and strenuously objected. The Sweet Home Chicago advocates and I had done our homework and found numerous past instances where Ald. Burke himself had provided less than 48 hour notice before calling an ordinance for a vote. But Ald. Burke and Mayor Daley--as is often the case--did not agree with me, and having the final word, they shut down the meeting with Sweet Home Chicago waiting another month to be debated.

Of course, the disagreement wasn't about 24 vs. 48 hours. It was about affordable housing and who is in favor of providing more and who is against. I don't pay lip-service to the issue, but instead have consistently worked with federal and state agencies, the City, foundations, religious institutions, community organizations, and directly with landlords to provide quality affordable housing in our community. Diversity is what our ward is about, and we want all our neighbors to live in decent housing that doesn't impose a financial hardship.

Not every self-proclaimed affordable housing plan is reasonable or workable, but Sweet Home Chicago presents a way to make affordable housing a greater reality for the entire city and would help to build and preserve needed housing in dozens of wards, including the 49th.

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, February 9. Sweet Home Chicago will be up for its vote. You can count on me to give you a ringside seat to the proceedings.