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Emanuel resurrects disbanded Department of Housing

Rahm Emanuel

“Every resident of Chicago deserves a great place to call home, and this new department will give the City a specialized resource to ensure housing remains affordable for anyone who wants to live, work and raise a family in Chicago,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Under fire to solve Chicago’s affordable housing crisis, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is bringing back the Department of Housing his predecessor and political mentor disbanded 10 years ago.

In a 2008 consolidation aimed at saving millions, former Mayor Richard M. Daley got rid of the Department of Housing and folded its responsibilities into the Department of Planning and Development.

The merger was supposed to create greater governmental efficiency and capitalize on the fact that many of the development projects that city planners work on include residential units, both affordable and market-rate.

But now that the shortage of affordable housing has emerged as a major issue in the crowded 2019 race for mayor, Emanuel has decided to come full-circle.

He’s bringing back the Department of Housing to focus exclusively on “supporting access to housing as a core component of all neighborhoods.”

“Every resident of Chicago deserves a great place to call home, and this new department will give the City a specialized resource to ensure housing remains affordable for anyone who wants to live, work and raise a family in Chicago,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release. “The Chicago Department of Housing will bring all of our work to make housing more affordable and accessible for all Chicagoans under one roof.”

The precise budget for the new/old department will not be known until the mayor outlines the structure and funding in his pre-election budget this fall.

But the mayor’s office is promising an “increase in staffing and resources to achieve the department’s strategic objectives” and implement the strategy outlined in the next Five-Year Housing Plan.

The newly recreated Department of Housing will “allow the City to meet the market where it is in every neighborhood, partnering with developers to implement existing tools and create new strategies where needed,” the mayor’s office said.

Affordable housing projects typically require an array of city incentives, including “land, financing, tax credits and affordability requirements to get across the finish line,” the city said.

Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas branded the mayor’s plan to bring back the Department of Housing “election-year pandering on steroids” and too little, too late.

“We have a crisis in affordable housing throughout the city. It is not only impacting the working poor, but every middle-class family. The Emanuel administration has been a complete failure in this area,” Vallas wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“Even more damaging has been their failure to take the type of actions needed to enable homeowners and renters to afford to remain in their own communities,” Vallas wrote. “No sudden decision to restore the Department of Housing as you enter your eighth year as mayor or token programs that will create a few hundred affordable housing units will correct that.”

Mayoral challenger Garry McCarthy was equally unimpressed. “How come he didn’t do that seven years ago?” McCarthy said. “He’s gonna have new initiatives at least weekly from now until the election because he wants to make announcements — whether it’s tunnels to O’Hare or whatever he can get his hands on.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the mayoral ally who serves as chairman of the City Council’s Housing Committee, was surprised, and a little miffed that the media was told before he was about the mayor’s decision to bring back the Department of Housing.

But Moore said it’s a good thing, nevertheless because Daley made a mistake.

“Even before I was chairman, I was always concerned that housing was gonna get the short end of the stick by having it combined with the Planning Department,” Moore said. “Now, that it’s returning to its own cabinet-level position, that will give it the status it deserves. … Housing is vital to the city. It deserves to have it’s own cabinet-level position.”

Asked whether he considers the department an election-year ploy, Moore said, “You can say that with anything that we in elective office do — especially during an election-year. I want to go beyond the politics of it and say it’s a good thing for the city. Good politics is good government.”

Last week, Emanuel announced plans to confront Chicago’s affordable housing crisis by offering yet another pre-election plum: a $30 million fund tailor-made to generate “300 affordable units in strong markets.”

With $5 million in seed money from the city and $25 million in foundation and private investments, Emanuel hopes the new “Chicago Opportunity Investment Fund” will provide developers “low-cost debt” to buy and renovate “existing, functioning rental buildings” in gentrifying city neighborhoods.

But there’s a catch: To qualify for the low-interest loans, developers must sign a 15-year commitment to make 20 percent of the units they create affordable. That means to qualify to live in those units, a family of four could have an annual income no higher than $39,500, or 50 percent of the median income in that area.

Three years ago, the City Council approved a new Affordable Housing Ordinance that includes dramatically higher fees and construction mandates that, City Hall predicted, would create 1,200 new units of affordable housing and generate $90 million over five years that could be used to build affordable housing