05/19/2011 04:21 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2011

Alderman Howard Brookins To Head Black Caucus After Affordable Housing Battle

Alderman Howard Brookins of Chicago's 21st Ward was chosen as the leader of the City Council's black caucus, after the group's previous leader stepped down this March amid turmoil on affordable housing rules.

Walter Burnett had been the head of the caucus for roughly two years, and spearheaded the effort to select a "consensus" black candidate for the Chicago mayoral race. At the time, he said that the pressures of the leadership job caused him to neglect responsibilities to his ward, and that he wanted to focus back on his home community.

But as the Chicago Sun-Times reported in March, when Burnett announced his resignation, he was also at the heart of a political battle that divided the caucus and ultimately contributed to his ouster.

Burnett was a sponsor of, and leading advocate for, the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would have mandated that 20 percent of all money in special tax-increment financing (TIF) districts be set aside for affordable housing development. On the face of it, that might not seem too offensive, given that the stated purpose of the TIFs is to collect cash for precisely that kind of redevelopment in blighted areas.

The ordinance, however, ran into heated opposition from supporters of Mayor Daley, who as mayor essentially had personal control over the roughly $500 million a year collected in TIFs, and used them to support development projects that had little to do with blight.

Many black aldermen echoed the complaints of the mayor's office, and added that affordable housing might further alienate the middle class in their wards.

Burnett, though, didn't let up. He pushed the issue consistently through election season, leading to political discomfort for many of the measure's opponents as activists picketed their offices demanding fair housing just as many of them faced heated re-election challenges.

Pressing the matter didn't make Burnett many friends in the caucus, but the alderman, who grew up in Cabrini-Green and was convicted of felony bank robbery at age 17, refused to let up. “Being a young man who grew up in public housing who’s been homeless before, I’m gonna continue to fight for people to have affordable housing, no matter what. That’s just me. That’s who I am. That’s where I come from. That’s in my genes,” Burnett said to the Sun-Times.

Ultimately, facing a dissenting and aggravated caucus, Burnett decided to step down.

In his place comes Howard Brookins, Jr., who was elected to his council seat in 2003. Brookins is best known in the city for his six-year fight to get a Wal-Mart built in his Chatham neighborhood, a fight he ultimately won last summer. While the ordinance allowing Wal-Mart was contentious in some circles, all the black aldermen still on the council voted for the measure when it came up.

His biggest early challenge will be keeping black seats at the table. The city's South Side lost a big chunk of its population in the most recent census, and it might take some mapping wizardry in the upcoming redistricting to keep 19 majority-black wards going forward.

"I just have to be forceful with it," Brookins said to the Chicago Tribune. "If I make an enemy, I make an enemy."

If he makes enough of them, though, his tenure might not last any longer than Burnett's.