New ordinance could cut affordable housing funds, advocates say

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The Sweet Home Chicago coalition has one clear goal: put more money into creating affordable housing for the city. How? By guaranteeing that 20 percent of Chicago's Tax Increment Finance dollars end up helping to fix up foreclosed properties or create new affordable housing.

But the city's alderman have been reticent. For months, the battle has been waging, and tomorrow, it will come to a head in the form of two dueling ordinances at this month's City Council meeting. Sweet Home Chicago's ordinance would guarantee that money from the city's TIF districts goes toward affordable housing. A second ordinance, proposed by 40th ward Ald. Patrick O'Connor, would make funding housing with TIF dollars a "goal.".

But that goal-oriented ordinance has a catch, and it's a big one. A few little words, tucked inside the legislation, could mean that the city would actually cut funding for affordable housing, not raise it.

The problem with alderman O'Connor's ordinance comes down to five little words: "or other city financial assistance." Every piece of legislation contains a section where each word is precisely defined. In O'Connor's ordinance, "obligate" is defined like this:

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See that phrase at the bottom - "or other city financial assistance"? By including that phrase, it changes the meaning of the bill. Instead of saying the city is obligated to spend money equal to 20 percent of TIF dollars on top of what they're already spending, it means that 20 percent of TIF dollars is the total goal for the city's housing funding, according to Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless .

You see, the city already spends a good bit of money on affordable housing. According to the city's five-year affordable housing plan, it plans to spend about $400 million each year. The Sweet Home Chicago coalition, made up of a dozen neighborhood organizations around Chicago and backed by 27th ward Ald. Walter Burnett, has been pushing for that much, plus an additional 20 percent of the TIF funds. This second ordinance means that everything the city spends on affordable housing would have to equal 20 percent of TIF funds - around $100 million. That makes the "goal" of this ordinance 75 percent less than what the city is already spending, according to the coalition. Dworkin discovered this in a meeting with  staff from the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Department of Housing and
Economic Development. They'd asked about the phrase "or other city financial assistance" before, and she says city staff was pretty tight-lipped. But in the last meeting, Dworkin pushed for a definition. Did it mean what she thought it meant - all the money the city spends on affordable housing?

"They  told us it would include anything listed in their quarterly report - including federal funding, city funding, state funding," said Dworkin. "It would include all of those things when tallying up how much they spend toward the goal."

This new information shows just how flimsy the ordinance is, Dworkin added.

"We said it didn't make any sense because it would be a net reduction in the city's goal. Our goal is to increase affordable housing," Dworkin said. "They didn't really respond to that."

The problem is, Dworkin said, some of the alderman don't realize this tricky little conundrum. They might not be on board with the actual Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, but they don't want to be against affordable housing. They want to say they voted for something. So they may end up voting for O'Connor's ordinance, thinking they're at least setting their sights on something higher, when the fine print reads exactly the opposite.

"We would have in place an ordinance that would set the bar very low for
all future planning and goal setting around affordable housing and
people voting for it would actually believe they were setting a new
higher goal," says Dworkin.

The Sweet Home Chicago coalition is gearing up for yet another fight over this bill, and they're letting alderman know that a vote for this second ordinance won't be seen as a compromise. 

"Aldermen who think they can
support this bill and be perceived as a champion of affordable housing
will be making a drastic mistake,"
said Diane
Limas, part of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council.
"Any alderman who votes 'yes' for O'Connor's ordinance should
be embarrassed by the decision they made."

Alderman O'Connor could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon, but we will update this story with his comments as they become available.  
 
Photo credit: Jill Allyn Stafford

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