Lightfoot choice gets an earful about Chicago’s affordable housing crisis

Housing commissioner nominee Marisa Novara was among those who argued that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build or preserve 40,000 homes didn’t go far enough.

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Newly-appointed Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara.

Newly-appointed Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara talks to a housing advocate after Novara’s confirmation hearing Thursday,

Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice to lead a revived Department of Housing got an earful from aldermen Thursday on ways to solve the affordable housing crisis driving Chicago’s precipitous population decline.

As vice-president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, Marisa Novara was among those who argued that a five-year, $1.4 billion plan crafted by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to build or preserve 40,000 homes fell far short of what the city needed.

Now, she’s in a position to do something about it as the city’s new housing commissioner.

Thursday’s confirmation hearing allowed aldermen to air ideas they want her to consider, such as:

  • Strengthening the Affordable Requirements Ordinance by mandating construction of family units.
  • Eliminating “loopholes” that allow developers to buy their way out of a requirement to build on-site units in gentrifying neighborhoods and perhaps creating incentives to do so.
  • Raising income limits for housing renovation assistance programs.
  • Discouraging the practice of demolishing three-flats and replacing them with single-family homes.
  • Encouraging basement, attic and coach house conversions.

Novara listened intently to all suggestions, embracing virtually every one.

Her 70-minute confirmation hearing drew 15 aldermen, including five freshmen. All had something to say. It was a showcase for the new, more progressive and more engaged City Council.

Newly-elected Ald. Matt Martin (47th) bemoaned “significant decreases” in affordable housing due to the loss of multi-unit buildings in the North Center neighborhood he represents.

“We’ve seen hundreds of those units de-converted into single-family homes. ... They all go for over $1 million. ... Increased assessments, coupled with increasing property taxes, have meant that we’ve seen huge declines in the number of middle- and low-income individuals,” Martin said.

“Unsurprisingly, that’s meant we’ve seen double-digit decreases in minority households as well as immigrant households. … While we are committed to equity and diversity, market forces mean we’re seeing less of that — not more.”

Novara acknowledged that what she called the “small kind of density” has been lost when buildings that held three families “fairly affordably” were demolished and replaced with single-family homes.

“I’m really interested in exploring what we can do about that. ... Changes with accessory dwelling units. Looking at basements. Looking at attics. Looking at coach houses,” the new commissioner said.

“I’d also really welcome working with you and others on, just as we talked about incentives, how do we dis-incentivize tear-downs or de-conversions.”

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) replaced 28-year veteran Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the former chairman of the Housing Committee.

There are “real gaps between where people are in our communities,” between “what they can actually afford — and what’s being built,” Hadden said.  

“I’m seeing a bunch of new market-rate development happening in the 49th Ward, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. But some of the rents are shocking — even to me,” she added.

“The city needs to do a better job of ... setting better guidelines for the market rate. … The city has left private market-rate development too much alone. And it’s gonna have long-term impacts. … There’s some real tensions and gaps.”

Newly-elected Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) asked Novara how much the shortage of affordable housing drives the exodus from Chicago.

“Displacement can occur via gentrification when you see higher-income people moving into a place,” Novara said.

“But it can also occur via dis-investment. That’s what we also see in many of our South and West Side communities that are majority African American,” Novara told aldermen.

“That’s a public policy imperative for the city to address on both fronts.”

Rookie aldermen weren’t the only ones weighing in.

Veteran Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) suggested giving developers an incentive to add more affordable units by taxing those units at a lower rate than market-rate units in the same development.

Burnett also said there’s a need to de-bunk “this myth” about affordable housing that has prompted some aldermen in white ethnic areas to o block affordable developments in their wards.

“People think affordable housing means black folks. Because they think that and don’t want it, it’s because they’re prejudiced,” Burnett said.

“But affordable housing don’t just mean black folks. Do you know there’s more white people on public aid than African-Americans in the city? I mean — give me a break. There’s a lot of poor white people.”

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