The discussion about problem buildings in the 49th ward has been put front and center again because of yet another tragedy — a fire that took the life of 3-year old child. It is unfortunate that it often takes tragedy to shine a light on problems, but human nature is such that we tend to ignore troubling situations until they become unbearable. So for now the trending dialogue in our community of Rogers Park, both online and I’m sure offline, is on how to deal with property owners and managers that repeatedly skirt the law and put tenants at risk.
How can they consistently seem to get away with running their buildings into the ground or at the very least continue to stay one step ahead of the court system?
Why aren’t our elected representatives in the city council doing more to address these issues?
Where’s the abhorrence and revulsion over these slumlords at all the other times?
Well, one answer may lie where you might suspect – campaign contributions. When it comes to Chicago politics there are no coincidences, especially when it comes to money in that cesspool of politics. The average citizen knows that money can buy a lot in our democracy, but other than an outright bribe, “pay to play” politics is nothing more than a distasteful practice that borders on the periphery of illegality. Yet, unlike any seasoned politician with much to hide, the numbers don’t lie and transparency, properly applied, has a way of pulling back the curtains and shining a very bright light on the piles of cash.
In 2006, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs released a report titled “Developing Government Accountability to the People (DGAP)”. This lengthy and thorough report examines among other things where the money for campaign contributions have come from in Chicago. Not surprisingly they found that on average, for all 50 aldermen, 31% of campaign contributions came from the “Real Estate Development, Construction and Management” sector. Yes, that same sector from which some of this city’s finest slumlords come from. Of course the 31% is an average and some wards do “better” than others when it comes to handouts from this industry. My own 49th ward is one of those, where nearly 44% of campaign contributions to our alderman came from this sector.
Now to be clear, this research covered an 18 month period from 2005 to 2006, and aldermen have been taking campaign contributions since Mayor Ogden first saw his opportunities in real estate. So indeed this is a snapshot, but given how every other industry pales in comparison— the closest is Retail & Wholesale Trade at 11% and all the rest are in single digits—and given this city’s appetite for “the deal”, one can begin to understand the impact that this industry has on Chicago. Add an alderman’s control over zoning (READ: aldermanic privilege) and leverage when it comes to building inspections into this mix and you begin to understand why this is such an advantageous relationship.
We all know that money talks and in some cases money silences as well. The sad fact is that one never knows exactly how much influence that money has in our city and exactly what is bought and sold through that influence. We can only speculate and rightfully conclude that it does influence, and the transparency provided by the DGAP report shines a bright light on that possible influence. After all, one doesn’t give money to someone without some expectation of reciprocity — well, unless you’re a Bill Gates giving it to charities to assuage your guilt over making far more money than he could ever be worth. In the case of many of our aldermen, we just never know when those reciprocity chips will get called in, and given the size of contributions coming from the Real Estate sector, the number of chips can buy an awful lot of reciprocation.
The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. — Patrick Henry, June 1788
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