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Vallas unveils plan to solve affordable housing crisis, cap property tax hikes

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO and Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas was interviewed in the Sun-Times newsroom. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO and Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Arguing that nothing tells the tale of two cities like Chicago’s affordable housing crisis, mayoral candidate Paul Vallas has a plan to cap property tax increases and overhaul the building and zoning codes to create “tens of thousands” of affordable units.

Before pulling the plug on his own re-election bid, Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolled out a conveyor belt of affordable housing programs.

He even promised to bring back the Department of Housing disbanded ten years ago with more staff and resources to implement a new five-year housing plan and “create new strategies to meet the market where it is in every neighborhood.”

At the time, Vallas branded the plan to bring back the Department of Housing “election-year pandering on steroids” and too little, too late.

Now, Vallas is outlining his own, more comprehensive plan to create an influx of affordable units and prevent Chicago homeowners reeling from the double-whammy of skyrocketing property taxes and increased assessments from being forced out of their homes.

The cornerstone is a five percent cap on property tax increases for all owner-occupied residences, apartments and businesses in Chicago.

The former Chicago Public Schools CEO called that a “responsible” approach because it “does not reduce the taxable base, but merely limits the tax increase to an affordable level” to protect homeowners and renters in “rapidly gentrifying areas.”

To prevent senior citizens on fixed incomes from being forced out of their homes, Vallas said he would push for a change in state law to allow elderly residents to freeze their property taxes until the property is sold.

A Vallas administration would also be far more aggressive than City Hall has historically been in opposing property tax appeals by large commercial owners with the wherewithal to hire clout-heavy attorneys and in challenging under-assessments of large commercial properties.

But the problem of skyrocketing property taxes is only part of the equation. The other part is creating enough units of affordable housing to stop Chicago’s precipitous population decline, particularly among African-Americans.

City Hall has long maintained that affordable housing projects typically require an array of city incentives, including “land, financing, tax credits and affordability requirements to get across the finish line.”

Vallas strongly disagrees.

He believes “tens of thousands” of affordable units could be created by changing Chicago’s building and zoning codes to make it easier for landlords to convert unfinished and unproductive spaces into apartments.

According to his analysis of Cook County property tax records, Chicago has 130,000 apartment buildings that range in size from two-flats to multi-unit buildings of 24 units or more.

The “overriding majority” of those buildings have “unfinished garden space ideally-suited for conversion that could provide upwards of 175,000 new housing units,” he said.

Add to that the “700 linear miles of vacant ground-level retail space” that may never be filled as purchasing power continues to migrate to the internet and you have the potential to flood the market with affordable units, Vallas said.

“Chicago has been ignoring a vast, untapped potential for a major expansion of housing options all over the city….Infrastructure is already in place and could benefit both prospective tenants as well as current property owners struggling to pay the skyrocketing property taxes, water and sewer fees and other expenses that have mushroomed under Mayor Emanuel,” Vallas said.

“Nothing demonstrates Chicago’s ‘tale of two cities’ more than housing. There has been an explosion of luxury housing development while middle-class families struggle to find affordable housing in neighborhoods across Chicago.”

Vallas acknowledged that a shortage of neighborhood parking has been a major impediment to increased housing density.

That’s why he’s proposing that the “initial stage” of his garden apartment push be confined to “transit-oriented development” zones accessible to mass transit.

Although he has accused Emanuel of making tax choices that squeeze the middle class, Vallas has yet to unveil his own plan to confront the nearly $1 billion surge in state-mandated pension payments that will smack the next mayor in the face.

A five percent property tax cap would further tie the new mayor’s hands.

On Wednesday, Vallas promised to unveil a five-year financial plan built around the five-percent cap when he delivers a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago on Monday.

“I’m not punting. I just want to wait until I have the audience so I can lay it out in a comprehensive way and get attention,” he said.