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How to Kill an Ordinance, One Vote at a Time; There's Mold in Them Thar Walls 

Activists are pressuring the City Council to set aside housing for the poor. But aldermen take their orders from a higher authority.

It was only a few months ago that housing activists dared to imagine the unimaginable: getting the City Council to make law in the face of Mayor Daley's opposition.

Despite the mayor's resistance, 25 aldermen had signed on to support an ordinance that would set aside 25 percent of all newly constructed or rehabbed housing units for low- and moderate-income people. "We needed 26 votes to pass it," says Tom Walsh, a member of the Balanced Development Coalition, which pushed for the ordinance. "All we needed was one more vote."

After a few weeks of negotiation and aggressive lobbying, the coalition managed to round up three more aldermen to support passage, but as soon as they exceeded the magic number, four other aldermen abandoned ship.

"We had 28 and now we're down to 24--it's funny how these things work, isn't it?" says Patricia Watkins, executive director of Target, a community group based in Auburn Gresham. "You can count the votes any way you want, but there's only one vote that matters--Mayor Daley's."

Like most of her allies in the coalition, Watkins figured they had a good chance of winning. They've been at it for two years. They had the strong support of Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who drafted the ordinance that year, as well as 15 community groups from various neighborhoods. Many religious leaders backed it. In March a City Hall press conference included rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, and Buddhist monks. Cardinal Francis George also signed on. "I can lend my moral support," George said at a rally two years ago. "What we are seeing in parts of the city is economic segregation. And it's not good."

According to its backers, the ordinance is needed to fight the impact of gentrification on two fronts: the neighborhoods people come from and the neighborhoods they go to. For instance, residents who moved away from Cabrini-Green have wound up in working-class west- and south-side communities such as Auburn Gresham.

"People have to go somewhere when they're gentrified out of a neighborhood--a lot of them come here," says Watkins. "Our schools are overcrowded. We're finding a lot of families moving in on top of each other. I think we need a much more balanced approach to housing."

But Daley has never wavered in his resistance. As he sees it, set-asides deter development the city needs to boost its property tax yield. He refuses to even meet with coalition leaders to talk about the issue.

The organizers decided to take their case to the aldermen in 2002. It was a long-shot strategy, as the council rarely if ever adopts legislation over Daley's public opposition.

For the almost two years since then, activists have barraged aldermen with calls and visits. "We told them it was good for their constituents and good for the city," says Watkins. "You can't get rid of all affordable housing in the city. You can't just move everyone out."

Of course, none of the aldermen publicly doubts the need for low-income housing; even the mayor's office concedes its necessity. But the major sticking point was the 25 percent set-aside--a lot of aldermen thought it was too high. "They said, cut the set-aside to 15 percent and we'll support it," says Walsh. "We finally agreed to make the compromise."

Preckwinkle redrafted her ordinance in May, dropping the set-aside requirement to 15 percent, and three new aldermen signed on: Berny Stone (50th), Tom Tunney (44th), and Richard Mell (33rd). "There's no big secret--I had told them previously I would sign on if they went to 15 percent," says Stone. "I'm not a big fan of set-asides. I think they could do better if they did it [affordable housing] voluntarily. But I gave them my word, and once I do that I don't go back."

As for Tunney, he bowed to pressure from local organizations. "A lot of seniors and clergy were lobbying him," says Matt Moreland-Gross, executive director of the Lakeview Action Coalition. "Once Tunney said yes to the concept, it was only a matter of the percentage. He drew the line at 25 percent--he said he's not signing on with that. Once we went down to 15, he was good with it."

In June, after Stone, Mell, and Tunney signed on, the coalition did a quick canvass of the aldermen. "We had 25 who had signed on when it was 25 percent set-aside, and then we got three more, so that makes 28," says Walsh. "Simple math, right?"

Wrong. Aldermen Isaac Carothers (29th), Emma Mitts (37th), Danny Solis (25th), and Latasha Thomas (17th) dropped their support once they learned the ordinance actually might pass. "They told us they weren't supporting the ordinance anymore--they said take their names off the list," says Walsh. "It doesn't make sense. You agree to 25 percent, why would you not agree to 15 percent? It's less controversial, for goodness sake."

Carothers, Mitts, Solis, and Thomas did not return calls for comment, so it's not clear if Daley contacted them. But he didn't have to. The mayor's aides routinely let the council know which way to go on crucial votes. "I went to Latasha and I asked her, 'Why did you back down?'" says Watkins. "She said there were some things she supported and other things she didn't support. She didn't get specific. To tell you the truth, I don't know what she's talking about. I'm not sure she knows what she's talking about."

In retrospect, the biggest surprise is that these four Daley loyalists signed on to support the measure in the first place. "I'll tell you what happened," says one political consultant familiar with the council. "The aldermen got tired of seeing [the activists] coming around, so they just said whatever they had to say to get them out of their face. 'You want me to sign on, sure--no problem, whatever.' They never thought the ordinance would go anywhere. These guys are naive. They don't realize most aldermen are full of crap."

Privately, the flip-flops have become a source of amusement for aldermen. "I wish I could have seen Danny's face when they told him it was gonna pass--he must have had a heart attack, thinking, 'Man, the mayor's gonna kill me,'" says one north-side alderman. "What a bunch of clowns."

The activists say they will press on, even though they're starting to realize the matter's doomed without Daley's support. "I don't think a Latasha Thomas will cross the mayor on anything," says Watkins. "They're playing musical chairs. One comes on, the other comes off. The only way to pass this is to line up at least 35 aldermen. Otherwise, if you have 26 or 27, the mayor will pick them off one by one."

There's Mold in Them Thar Walls

It is, of course, unkind to delight in the misfortunes of others. But it's hard for longtime preservationists, blues fans, and housing activists to stifle a smirk at the latest calamity to visit the Marie Robinson Residence Hall.

That's the dormitory at Maxwell and Halsted for which several old buildings were destroyed as part of a plan by Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois at Chicago to transform the neighborhood. Last month UIC announced they were closing the dorm and moving its residents to nearby apartments because of "water infiltration, moisture and mold conditions." The building, leaking like a sieve, was infected with mold and a danger to its inhabitants.

"It's more than ironic," says Bill Lavicka, a west-side rehabber at the forefront of the unsuccessful fight to save Maxwell Street. "This never would have happened had they saved those old buildings."

Over the past ten years the city and the university have made a lot of promises to justify what was really just an old-fashioned move-the-poor-people-out urban-renewal project. They said that they were going to build research labs to help find a cure for cancer (still haven't built them), that they were going to build recreation fields for the community (haven't gotten around to it), that they were ridding the city of decaying structures. "There were 30 to 35 perfectly good old buildings around there," says Lavicka. "But they had their experts say the buildings were decrepit and falling apart. They got the professional guys to stand up and say--oh, what were their words? They called them 'slum and blighted.'"

By 2002 most of the original residents had been moved and almost all of the buildings destroyed to make way for a bunch of big brick buildings.

The centerpiece was Marie Robinson Hall, a 125-unit dormitory that UIC hoped to use as a recruiting tool to lure smart young minds from all over the world, helping the university evolve from a commuter school into a first-class research institution.

But on July 16 UIC sent out a press release acknowledging that "many of the building's 1,200 windows are leaking and will need to be replaced or repaired. Replacing the windows with the students in the building would be extremely disruptive to students and result in a longer and more costly process."

School officials are scrambling to move the 350 residents elsewhere while they bring in the experts to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. "Maybe they should make a deal with Campbell's," says Lavicka. "With that mold, they must have mushrooms growing there for the soup."

This is the second bit of bad news to hit Robinson Hall since it opened. In 2002 a flap arose after the university moved 18 undergraduates, all of them African-American single moms, from the dorm. Folks are starting to wonder if there's a hex over Robinson Hall, like the one hanging over the Boston Red Sox, jinxed for having sold Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger of all time. "There may be something to that--you don't want to mess with an icon," says Lavicka. "I told them not to destroy those old buildings. They were there for a hundred years and probably would have been there for another hundred years."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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