Cries of racism, fear, meddling mark NW Side affordable housing flap

SHARE Cries of racism, fear, meddling mark NW Side affordable housing flap

Ald. John Arena at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2014. File Photo. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

It’s just a local neighborhood issue.

That’s what I remember saying when first approached last winter to write about an affordable housing project being proposed for Ald. John Arena’s 45th Ward.

I quite underestimated the matter, as it turns out.

On Monday, supporters and opponents of the seven-story, 100-unit residential building in Jefferson Park faced off at City Hall in an emotional debate that continued to transcend both the boundaries of the 45th Ward and the underlying zoning dispute.


Some of the supporters, including Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), accused the opponents of racist motivations, prompting denials that were in turns angry and tearful.

After hours of testimony that dragged into the early evening, the Zoning Committee voted unanimously in favor of the proposal, which has Arena’s strong backing.

I can promise you that won’t be the end of it. For one thing, the project has more legal hurdles to clear, and it’s ripe for political exploitation in the age of Trump.

The first signs that this was going to be more than a 45th Ward issue came in February when opponents from across the Northwest Side, including neighboring Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), turned out for a public hearing that deteriorated into fear mongering about low-income housing tenants.

It is very unusual for any alderman to stick his nose into a colleague’s business in that way.

This was later followed by Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) making an unusual intervention at another Zoning Committee meeting to keep the proposal from coming to a vote, based on too few aldermen being present.

But supporters of the project also reached beyond the 45th Ward’s borders to bring in advocacy groups to lobby for its approval.

Ald. John Arena and supporters of a proposed affordable housing development in  Jefferson Park speak to reporters before Monday’s Zoning Committee hearing. Photo by Mark Brown.

Ald. John Arena and supporters of a proposed affordable housing development in Jefferson Park speak to reporters before Monday’s Zoning Committee hearing. Photo by Mark Brown.

They argued that affordable housing is everyone’s business, and of course, it is. The Jefferson Park folks didn’t take too kindly to what they saw as outside interference.

Perhaps the best comment I heard Monday on that point was from a young woman in a wheelchair from Access Living, who noted the reason she and many others don’t live in Jefferson Park is that there is no affordable, accessible housing.

“I’d love to be your neighbor, but you’re not making it very easy for us,” she said.

The developer of the building at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. has promised to make 20 of the apartments fully wheelchair accessible. Another 20 are supposed to be reserved for veterans. Opponents question whether the developer will keep these commitments.

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law warned the city’s Law Department that rejection of the project could be viewed as fair housing discrimination under federal civil rights laws. Meaning, we’ll sue.

I’m going to take the advice of Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the Zoning Committee chairman, who suggested that it’s unwise to label any large group of people as racists. Indeed, I can’t see into everyone’s heart.

I’m sure there are many people who sincerely don’t like the project for one reason or another, mainly for the usual not-in-my-backyard reasons. Many argued that if the building were reduced to four stories, they would have no problem with it.

But I’ve also been around long enough to know that when people get as vehement as some of them are about this proposal that there’s more at work than zoning density. And some of them posted Facebook comments to prove it.

Arena, serving in his second term as alderman, has staked his political future on the outcome of this project.

John Garrido, his opponent in two prior runoffs, has been helping to channel community anger toward Arena and spoke against the project Monday.

Any other aldermen might have tried to find a way to tamp down the level of vitriol being directed his way, but Arena, a stubborn sort, decided the majority of voters in his ward would stick with him.

Mark down the 45th Ward again as one to watch in 2019.

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