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Aldermen Tue Dec 15 2009

Tough TIF Questions Asked on Dearborn Street

Braving the cold, more than 200 members and supporters of the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition gathered outside of Alderman Robert Fioretti's office (2nd Ward) at 429 S. Dearborn St. Tuesday morning, sometimes shivering from the bitter temperature but united in their chant:

"What do we want? Affordable housing!"

Members of the Coalition, which unites three unions and nine community organizations, marched outside of Firoetti's office, urging the alderman to support an ordinance that requires 20 percent of future money generated from tax increment financing districts (TIFs) go toward affordable housing. In a TIF district, property taxes are frozen, freeing up money that would normally go to schools or parks in order to spur development in "blighted" areas. But the city's management of these funds has come under scrutiny lately, thanks to the tireless work of Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader, the Block 37 fiasco and thoughtful tracking from Progress Illinois.

According to the Coalition, Firoetti has supported TIF subsidies for wealthy corporations but has yet to support TIF funding for affordable housing. The Coalition released a report today (.pdf) showing that $91.8 million in city funds designated for these "blighted" areas instead has gone toward offices for companies that average billions of dollars in profits. According to the report, Firoetti has supported six of the ten projects the Coalition reviewed. In addition, members of the Coalition argue that if the $91.8 million instead went toward affordable housing, 2,944 residents could have received accommodation.

While the 20 percent won't fix all of the city's affordable housing woes, Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, argues that it's a strong step toward creating more permanent affordable housing. "We decided that would be an adequate amount to spend on housing," she says. "We thought it was realistic. We're not asking for all of the money. We're asking for something that we think would make a significant impact."

Dworkin acknowledges that the ordinance is "not the whole solution," but it's the best thing the city can do now. "We're in this terrible recession," she says. "There isn't extra money lying around, except in these TIF pots. We know it's there...It's urgent right now in the recession because the need for housing is so much greater. We have this foreclosure crisis, we have unemployment rising, the numbers from Chicago Public Schools shows with homeless children, there's 25 percent more this fall than last fall, so this is the time when the need is really great...In Chicago, we've been dismantling public housing, so we have lost thousands and thousands of units through the demolition of public housing. We've been building some more, but we have not nearly made up for what's been lost."

At the rally, protestors listened to stories from residents who are affected by the city's TIF policies, including Ursula, a member of SEIU Local 1, who has cleaned upscale downtown offices for more than twenty years.

"I get paid a little over $14 an hour," she says. "I see how much [top leaders] in the corporation are getting and how much profit they make. This makes me angry. I have lived in my home over 10 years. Right now, I have to work two and a half months just to pay my property taxes. I have to work very hard to afford to pay my electric and gas bills. I pay over $1,500 for my gas bill. It's wrong...Workers like me get no help at all."

Ald. Fioretti spoke to the crowd a little before 11 a.m. He says he hasn't supported the ordinance because it doesn't address all of his concerns. "The question is how we create affordable housing throughout the city. Not just in TIF districts," he says. In addition, he argues that the past TIF projects he has supported -- such as $25 million to United Airlines and $15 million to CME Group, according to the Coalition -- helps keep jobs in the city and generates thousands of dollars in lease and sales tax.

But that hasn't changed the situation for thousands of people who experience homelessness for at least part of the year and are in dire need of affordable housing.

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"We need affordable housing and they keep giving money to the corporations -- they don't need it," says Jose Vasquez, a Chicago resident who came out around 9:30 to support the Coalition. "[These corporations] have money. I don't see them giving money for affordable housing, but that's the way the city works. They get money from them. What are they going to get from us? Nothing. Except taxes maybe."

Marchers also listened to Sophia, a homeless woman who lives in shelters with her two daughters. As one of her young daughters looked on, Sophia asked why elected city officials can't help provide housing -- a basic human necessity -- to low-income families.

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"It's hard living in this world with no housing," she says. "No one wants to keep running from shelter to shelter...we need to come together and keep praying and crying to the man above for us to gain more housing. Housing today would be a blessing for a lot of people."

Ten days before Christmas, marchers ended the protest with their own rendition of a classic holiday song: "We wish we had affordable housing for a happy New Year."

Update: Check out more local coverage of the event at Megan Cottrell's One Story Up blog here and Angela Caputo's analysis over at Progress Illinois.

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John Lastre / December 16, 2009 6:01 AM

Fioretti was disingenuous at best. First he implied that the proposed ordinance didn't have sponsors even though Mr. Burnett has publicly stated he is the primary sponsor along with two other Alderman. Further Mr. Fioretti knows that the likelihod of getting affordable housing built outside of a TIF discrict is close to nil. I suppose he thinks there is going to be affordable housing next to the Willis Tower. Oh, wait. The Willis Tower got TIF. Whatever you think of Mr. Fioretti he sure can spin a yarn.

Lisa / December 31, 2009 6:28 AM

Affordable housing is what everybody's looking and asking for, why can't the authorities give them? Help is badly needed. Argument won't get us anywhere. Cooperation and sacrifice from everyone will be contributive to the solution.

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