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Daily Line: "This is theft." Housing organizers accuse developers of skirting affordable

Members of the Our Home Chicago coalition rallied outside of the New City apartment and entertainment complex Friday. [Alex Nitkin/The Daily Line] Read full coverage here:

A coalition of housing activists on Friday called on city leaders to change the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance to keep “scofflaw” developers from skirting their commitments to build affordable housing.

Members of the Our Home Chicago coalition rallied outside of the New City apartment and entertainment complex in Lincoln Park, where rent for a studio apartment starts at $1,800. The development was completed in 2015 on the former site of a YMCA facility that served residents of the now-demolished Cabrini Green homes.

Organizers handed out copies of the 2007 Planned Development agreement signed by the city and developers Structured Development and Bucksbaum Retail Properties, in which the companies committed to including 40 affordable units in the complex. Half were to be subsidized through the Chicago Housing Authority.

But 12 years later, the affordable units have yet to be built. The 2007 agreement was signed before the Affordable Requirements Ordinance codified the mandates into city code, meaning that the city had no way of enforcing the agreement.

Structured Development still plans to donate a parcel of the property to the non-profit Evergreen Real Estate Group so it can build a 49-unit complex with 39 affordable apartments, according to Structured Development principal Michael Drew. Assuming the developers land an expected round of state tax credits, construction is set to get underway on the homes next spring, Drew told The Daily Line.

Earlier this year, Structured Development and Bucksbaum sold New City to a Washington, D.C.-based real estate firm for $75 million, according to Crain’s.

Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, said during Friday’s rally that the city’s lax oversight of affordable housing development “needs to end.”

“At the end of the day, this is theft from the people of the city of Chicago,” Johnson said. “It’s theft from the people who used to live in this area, from Cabrini Green. When you make a commitment, you must abide by it.”

The housing organizers said Ald. Walter Burnett (27), who negotiated the affordable housing agreement in 2007, failed to hold the developers accountable. They also handed out records showing $24,000 in donations the developers had made to the alderman since 2007, calling the contributions a “specific example of how corruption drives Chicago’s segregation and affordable housing shortages.”

Asked about the accusation on Friday, Burnett said, “Give me a break.”

“I do more for affordable housing than those activists do,” Burnett told The Daily Line. He added that he has been pushing developers to include affordable units in their proposals since before the city put requirements in place.

Drew said it was “offensive” for the activists to suggest that the developer’s donations stretching back 12 years have influenced the city’s policy toward his company.

At the time the $275 million development opened in 2015, the developers had an agreement with affordable housing developer Peter Holsten to build the subsidized units next to New City. That deal later collapsed, and Structured Development tried partnering with two other non-profit developers before the company reached a deal with Evergreen, Drew said.

“We have in no way walked away from our obligation” to build affordable units on the New City site, Drew said. “It has taken us quite a long time to get to this point…but we are moving forward.”

The Our Home Chicago organizers timed their protest with the Chicago Department of Housing’s announcement of appointments to its task force convened to revise the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which Burnett helped write in 2007 and rewrite in 2015.

The activists also renewed their call for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to throw her weight behind two proposed measures — the Homes for All (O2018-5099) and Development for All (O2018-5102) ordinances — they say would help close the 180,000-unit gap between the city’s supply of affordable housing and its need.

A spokesperson for Lightfoot did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Three members of the task force are also part of the Our Home Chicago coalition that supports the ordinances. They are Access Living organizer Cathleen O’Brien, One Northside organizer Noah Moskowitz and Logan Square Neighborhood Association organizer Christian Diaz.

During a call with reporters earlier this week, city Housing Comm. Marisa Novara said officials are “committed to going over the concepts” outlined in both proposed ordinances.

“We know that Development for All is the product of a lot of input, and we want to learn from what the organizers have learned,” Novara said.

City Council Housing Committee Chair Ald. Harry Osterman (48) scheduled a subject matter hearing for the Development for All ordinance during the next meeting of his committee on Dec. 11, and he plans to hold a similar hearing for Homes for All in January, he said.

Osterman is one of three aldermen appointed to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance task force as co-chairs. Freshman Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25), a vocal supporter of both proposed ordinances, is also a co-chair.

The third co-chair is Burnett, who said on Friday that he has refused to read the language of the proposals because Chicago Housing Initiative Executive Director Leah Levinger was involved in crafting them.

Levinger, who is a leading voice behind the Our Home Chicago coalition, helped organize Friday’s protest at New City.

“I can’t work with her…I’ll work with anybody else but her,” Burnett said. “She’s too irrational, too emotional, and she don’t know how to negotiate. She doesn’t know how to take a win.”

In response, Levinger told The Daily Line that she is “none of those things.”

“What I am is highly dedicated to my work, which is fighting to house poor people, and apparently [Burnett] doesn’t like that,” Levinger said. “He’s a problematic individual doing problematic things in his own backyard, and he knows we’re tracking every element of it.”

Representatives of Bucksbaum Retail Properties and Holsten Real Estate Development did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

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