Bringing more affordable housing to Chicago requires policy, not politics

File photo by Jonathan Gibby

Three days after the Chicago Tribune reported that the centerpiece of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s affordable housing program had fallen far short of his promises, Emanuel announced he was re-establishing the city’s Department of Housing.

It had all the hallmarks of a campaign-season distraction.

Indeed, Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, called the move a “smokescreen,” an attempt to frame the city’s growing housing crisis as a problem of bureaucratic inattention “instead of talking about the real issues of race and class segregation, and how public and private interests are harmonized.”

Emanuel’s last big housing move—a revamped Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which increased opt-out fees for housing developers who get city assistance to avoid affordable housing quotas, was passed in March 2015, weeks before the runoff in the mayoral election.

At the time the mayor’s office predicted the measure would create 1,200 new units of affordable housing over the next five years and generate $90 million for the two housing funds. According to the Tribune, the ordinance generated just 194 units in its first two years, and just $9.2 million in fees.

This hardly made a dent. DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies estimates there are 230,000 units in Chicago that are affordable for 350,000 low-income households – a “rental affordability gap” of 120,000. And its most recent report found that while that gap has decreased in suburban Cook County, it has increased in Chicago.

There’s an interesting pattern here – call it the “mayoral credibility gap” – of election-year promises that don’t pan out. Emanuel recently announced new initiatives for early education and for City Colleges. But he also announced new initiatives in both areas four years ago. As of this year, since Emanuel took office, pre-school enrollment is down 18 percent, according to the Chicago Teachers Union, and City Colleges enrollment is down 35 percent, according to the Better Government Association.

The CHI wants the city to get serious about the growing affordable housing crisis. Backed by 25 community groups, three major unions, and five aldermen, the group has proposed a package of ordinances to close…

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