Affordable housing should be in all Chicago neighborhoods

Someone who needs a subsidy to live affordably should have just as many options of where to live as someone who does not. You cannot build affordable housing only where it’s cheapest, or where people will protest the least.

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An affordable housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. in Jefferson Park.

An affordable housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Highway in Jefferson Park, shown on May 11. When then-Ald. John Arena announced plans in 2017 to bring an affordable housing development to the neighborhood, the proposal drew resistance and “racially charged” comments on Facebook — many of them from Chicago cops.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After two decades of building affordable housing and studying the impacts of segregation on Chicago, my conviction remains that you cannot build affordable housing only where it’s cheapest, or only where people will protest the least. You have to build it where it’s needed, which is everywhere.

Not convinced? Don’t take my word for it — look to Chicago as a living case study. For decades, government and private actors treated the placement of affordable housing as a racist containment strategy, and the results are clear: in June, Brown University reaffirmed Chicago as the country’s most segregated city. A 2017 Metropolitan Planning Council study found that if the Chicago region lowered its racial and economic segregation to the national median, it would reap the benefits of $4 billion more in African American income, $8 billion in GDP, 30% fewer homicides and 120,000 more bachelor’s degrees.

It turns out that building housing only where it’s the cheapest to build and where neighbors object the least isn’t so cheap after all. Nor, more importantly, is it fair or equitable.

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If you need a subsidy to live affordably, you should have just as many options of where to live as someone who does not. We all want the freedom to move around the city as our lives change and job or school opportunities beckon, as well as the freedom to stay and thrive in a community that we have long called home, and as a city we all benefit when we can do so. Every community needs to contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs.

Here’s how, over the past four years during my time as commissioner of the Department of Housing for the City of Chicago, we’ve moved closer to that goal:

We conducted the country’s first Racial Equity Impact Assessment on affordable rental housing, and we put $1 billion behind the results. In our most recent and largest ever funding round in 2021, we ensured that Black and Brown developers were at the table to build wealth through the creation of affordable housing, and created an equitable distribution citywide by calling for proposals — and ultimately, funding — in three market types: high-income, transitioning and disinvested.

We strengthened inclusionary housing, the city’s main tool to create affordable housing in amenity-rich areas without public subsidy. Our 2021 Affordable Requirements Ordinance requires developers to guarantee that at least 20% of all units in a given development are affordable, and serve lower incomes and larger households than before.

We partnered with communities experiencing displacement. For example, the city acquired a massive lot at 18th and Peoria streets in Pilsen, where hundreds of units of affordable housing will be built. We provided resident protections through the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, and affordable development of city-owned land in Woodlawn, and funded the 100% affordable Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Apartments in Logan Square.

When we saw that laws were resulting in inequities, we changed them. A prime example is the 2022 Connected Communities ordinance, which took shape after we found in 2019 that 90% of transit-oriented developments to that point were on the North Side, downtown or in the West Loop. Recognizing the wealth of transit that exists on the South and West sides, we passed a law that transformed the zoning code to ensure more equitable results. In 2021, 18 of 24 projects we funded were equitable transit-oriented developments, and 12 of those 18 were on the South and West sides.

We need all of this and more to continue. But we have momentum; Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot paved the way for pursuing the equitable distribution of affordable housing, and Mayor Brandon Johnson is already taking concrete strides to realize the promise of Bring Chicago Home, a dedicated revenue source for those experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.

I reflect frequently on activist Mariame Kaba’s quote that hope is a discipline, and as I step away from the role of housing commissioner, my hope is that we will all engage in the discipline to keep pressing.

There is no magic fairy that will make this city more equitable, and a “Hate Has No Home Here” yard sign alone won’t cut it either. Creating a more equitable city means actually going to the community meeting to speak up in support of the affordable housing proposal in your neighborhood. It means doing the painstaking work of holding government accountable while also taking the time to understand and work through its constraints. It’s a tall order, but we’re Chicagoans. We got this.

Marisa Novara recently stepped down as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing, a job she held since 2019.

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