The City Council meeting Wednesday was sailing along as usual, with one unanimous omnibus vote approving scores of piece of legislation, bond issues, and lawsuit settlements, when housing committee chairman Ray Suarez asked for approval of the city’s new affordable housing plan. Suarez argued, as he often does, that Chicago’s efforts to help thousands of low- and middle-income families find housing were among the most ambitious in the country—a network of initiatives expected to cost $2.1 billion and yield about 50,000 new and preserved housing units by 2013.
“There is no such thing as a perfect plan,” Suarez said. “But other cities don’t even come near our plan.”
Even in these “hard times,” as the alderman put it, affordable housing isn’t exactly a sexy topic—most of his colleagues were barely paying attention to Suarez, and many reporters covering the meeting were conducting interviews about new fines for drivers caught talking on their cell phones.
But then Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti asked to speak. Fioretti is somehow as earnest as he is slick, a white guy representing a predominantly black ward who was smart enough to introduce a resolution commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the NAACP, then smart enough to laugh and shrug when Mayor Daley’s staff took it out of his hands and let the council’s black aldermen officially cosponsor it. This time he wanted to let everyone know that, yes, the affordable housing proposal was “a good plan” that he would support without reservation. Still, it didn’t do enough.
The plan calls for spending more than $100 million, most of it in federal “neighborhood stabilization” funds, to aid troubled buildings and put foreclosed properties back into use. But that’s only expected to address a fraction of the thousands of endangered properties in Chicago.
Fioretti said last weekend he’d driven on local roads from the far south side to the Loop and was shocked to see one boarded-up property after another. Last year there were more than 20,000 foreclosures in Chicago, he noted, and 2009 is expected to be worse. “We have to find a way, we have to come up with a plan, to capture these houses and put them back into use.”
Suarez wasn’t surprised to hear this—he and Fioretti had talked about it before the meeting, and advocates like the Chicago Rehab Network have been making the same argument for months. But Suarez frequently looks annoyed even when he hasn’t been interrupted, and this time he appeared ready to smack Fioretti upside the head with a stack of foreclosure reports.
It only got stickier when Ed Burke, the powerful chairman of the council’s finance committee, jumped in with some of his own eloquent outrage about the country’s economic problems and the devastating impact they’re having on working people. He announced that he was introducing a nonbinding resolution asking banks that hold city deposits to work more aggressively to help people stay in their homes.
Suarez couldn’t, and didn’t want to, argue with this. So, as city officials are wont, he called on the federal government to do a lot more a lot faster, and he pointed a finger at what he knew to be the real source of the problem: greedy corporate financiers. “Many bankers don’t have the interests of home owners in mind,” he declared. Then he asked for passage of the affordable housing plan. He got it.