HYDE PARK — A Hyde Park town hall Tuesday was part aldermanic forum, part “airing of grievances” — and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was the guest of honor.
One by one, neighbors who attended the candidate forum at First Unitarian Church, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave., took aim at the five-term alderman, grilling her on everything from food deserts to economic development.
One resident told Hairston that she’d been contacting her office about a tree on her roof for four years without a response. An apologetic Hairston vowed to fix the way her office handles service requests, telling the woman that her office has implemented a system where service tickets are generated by 311.
Hairston’s challengers, former Hyde Park Herald editor Gabriel Piemonte and activist William Calloway, scoffed.
“There’s a couple on 72nd and Paxton who can’t get answer about whether a trash barrel can be on the end of their street, there’s a guy on 53rd and Woodlawn who wants to know why the sewers that back up after every rain can’t get routed out,” Piemonte said. “I’ve knocked on thousands doors and I’ve heard that over and over again…anyone who thinks the 311 system is working in terms of being responsive is indicating to you their lack of interest in the service needs of their constituents.”
Calloway echoed that sentiment, adding that the ward needs an alderman that is visible and responsive.
“When it comes down to it, it’s really simple: you just have to have an alderman with a willingness to respond,” said Calloway, who fought to bring the tape of Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald to light. “Obviously, the leadership is reflective of the staff because it’s non-responsive.”
Hairston’s 5th ward includes all or parts of Hyde Park, South Shore, Greater Grand Crossing, Woodlawn and Jackson Park Highlands — including the future home of the Obama Presidential Center.
She has come under fire for her opposition to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would require Obama Presidential Center leaders to sign a legally-binding document that includes an affordable housing mandate and a property tax freeze for longtime residents.
The crowd grumbled when Hairston brushed off the CBA question, and her opponents pounced.
“A CBA is not some abstract policy idea,” Piemonte said, noting the city’s use of eminent domain to take land from homeowners for projects. “You need the community, and you have to respect the process.”
Former President Barack Obama himself rejected the idea of a CBA in 2017, telling South Siders that an agreement wasn’t necessary because the foundation is a nonprofit and is bringing money and other benefits to the community that it otherwise would not have received.
“I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork,” Obama said at the time.
Affordable housing and rent control
As 5th Ward candidates worked to have their voices heard, 4th Ward candidate Ebony Lucas weighed in on issues impacting her ward, which stretches from Downtown to Hyde Park along the lakefront. Sitting Ald. Sophia King (4th) could not attend the forum due to a previous engagement.
As the conversation veered toward affordable housing and gentrification, Lucas, a Kenwood real estate attorney, said she would like to see more affordable homes built on vacant lots in the 4th ward so that Obama Center employees will have a place to call home.
But Lucas would not support rent control.
“If we look at rent control in cities like San Franscico, it accelerated gentrification,” Lucas said. “We have to provide developers with more incentives, with affordable property taxes. We have a lot of subsidized housing but we don’t have a lot of affordable housing.”
Piemonte and Calloway support rent control, but both suggested more direct communication between residents and developers.
If elected, Calloway said he wouldn’t take any campaign cash from developers, and would create a community task force that would meet with those interested in building in the ward.
“We need new leadership that will involve the community,” he said.
In a moment of unity, all candidates said developers should no longer be allowed to avoid building affordable housing on site by writing a big check to the city.
“We have to have conversations with developers about what they’re building, and we need neighborhood development councils with binding power to tell developers ‘no, this needs more,'” Piemonte said.
For a full guide to the 2019 municipal elections, check out Chi.Vote here.
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