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Jefferson Park, Portage Park

Did Support For Affordable Housing Cost Ald. John Arena His 45th Ward Seat?

Residents "felt that they didn't have an opportunity for their voices to be heard," said James "Jim" Gardiner, an EMT, who ousted the two-term alderman.

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JEFFERSON PARK — As candidates for mayor and aldermen attempted to woo voters with their affordable housing bonafides leading up to Tuesday’s election, Northwest Side Ald. John Arena’s support for a mixed-income complex in Jefferson Park may have been his undoing.

With massive support from first responder unions, Chicago Fire EMT Jim Gardiner won 51.4 percent of the vote Tuesday, ousting Arena outright in a four-way race. Arena, a two-term alderman, landed 35.9 percent of the vote, according to Chicago Board of Elections figures.

Credit: Chi.Vote
Feb. 26 election totals.

During his re-election campaign, Arena, a member of City Council’s Progressive Caucus, faced fierce opposition from the northwest corner of the ward for supporting a new affordable housing development for veterans and seniors that is on track to come to Jefferson Park. He also faced backlash in how he shepherded development plans for the business corridors in Jefferson Park and Portage Park.

Credit: Alex Nitkin /DNAinfo Chicago
Ald. John Arena at a heated community meeting over the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. development in 2017.

The five-story, 75-unit mixed-income complex at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. exposed a divide over affordable housing in the ward, prompting accusations of racism and corruption. Opponents argued the development had potential to bring violent crime into one of the city’s safest neighborhoods.

Arena argued that the project was needed in an area where rents are rising.

“The reaction to this proposal showed me a side of Jefferson Park I wasn’t proud of and a bit shocking to me,” Arena said amid the controversy.

At a 45th Ward forum in January, some residents booed and hissed at Arena as he spoke about the project.

In February 2018, Arena filed a complaint with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability alleging that Chicago Police officers who live in the ward were posting “racially charged language” online about the affordable housing project Arena was supporting in Jefferson Park, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Credit: Alex Nitkin / DNAinfo Chicago
Residents protesting the Northwest Highway proposal in 2017.

The project was ultimately approved in September 2018 by the City Council.

That northwest corner of the 45th Ward is home to many police officers and other first responders — and it’s where Gardiner, who was endorsed by police, firefighter and more than 20 trade unions — won most of his support.

On Wednesday, after his victory, Gardiner downplayed the affordable-housing controversy’s role in his election.

“That’s business between John Arena and first responders. I had nothing to do with that. That’s how he ran his administration. He can speak to that,” Gardiner told Block Club.

He noted that not everyone who lives in the west end of the ward are first responders.

“But I will try to represent everyone fairly, and I understand the sacrifices that first responders make because I’ve been doing it for 14 years,” Gardiner said. “I would do everything possible to have the most productive relationship possible with police and fire so we can build a better community.”

Asked about his own position on affordable housing, Gardiner said he wants to see more data on the current need for affordable housing in the ward and citywide before weighing in the issue.

“I understand the need of affordable housing and will do everything to accommodate those needs,” Gardiner said.

On WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Gardiner was further pressed on whether 45th Ward voter’s concerns over affordable housing led to his election.

“There was a concern in the community, I think they felt that they didn’t have an opportunity for their voices to be heard,” he said. “They didn’t think that the transparency was adequate.”

Gardiner said “some people possibly could have been” led to support him over the Arena’s stance on affordable housing.

“But I also think when they recognized who I was and what I represented, it wasn’t so much about somebody else as about what I had to offer on the table,” he said.

Arena did not return calls for comment, but in a thread on Twitter late Wednesday the aldermen thanked his supporters and touted his accomplishments in the ward — including 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.

“Perhaps the most consequential accomplishments of my tenure as alderman, however, will be providing 75 units of accessible and affordable housing in an area where it is so severely lacking,” Arena tweeted.

“Our efforts to provide veterans and persons with disabilities affordable accessible housing on the far northwest side has acted as a catalyst for citywide conversations about aldermanic prerogative when it pertains to affordable housing.”

RELATED: Ald. John Arena Apologizes For Text Message Calling Former Challenger Garrido A ‘Cuck’

A split ward

Citywide, only 33.5 percent of registered voters turned out on a cold and snowy Election Day Tuesday. But in the 45th Ward, 41.5 percent of voters came out.

The three areas with the highest voter turnout in the ward were Norwood Park’s Precinct 42 (50.64 percent), the Jefferson Park-heavy Precinct 3 (50.26 percent) and Precinct 15, which is roughly in Portage Park, with 49.77 percent.

A map shows how polarized voters were in the ward. For the most part, Gardiner enjoyed more support in the west end of the ward, and Arena in the east.

Gardiner said he spent much of his campaign knocking on doors.

“I set out to knock on every single one in the ward,” Gardiner said. “Every door that was able to be knocked, was knocked. I spoke to every single person I possibly could.”

Credit: submitted
Jim Gardiner, the 45th Ward’s new alderman.

Gardiner’s plans for the ward

As he prepares to take over as 45th Ward alderman when he is sworn in in May, Gardiner said he will first work to build out his office staff.

When asked what his plans are for his first months in office, Gardiner said he didn’t want to have too rigid a rollout plan until his office staff is in place.

“What I want to do is make people feel as if their voice is heard and that it’s well received and respected,” Gardiner said. “This is a teamwork effort. This is not about me. I don’t believe that one person has an answer to all these problems.”

He aims to host a community meeting with ward residents as soon as possible.

“The end goal wasn’t for me to become alderman, the end goal was for the community to become better,” he said.

Gardiner said he has nothing against Arena, adding that the only way the 45th Ward is going to move forward is if all of its neighborhoods can come together post-election.

During the WTTW appearance Wednesday night, Gardiner also addressed an order of protection a former girlfriend filed against him in 2017.

He said 45th Ward voters were “smart enough to see past that distraction.”

“It’s in my past. I think my competition tried to make something out of nothing,” Gardiner said. “It’s nothing personal. This is politics. This is Chicago. I get it. I’m born and raised here. I’m a tough Chicago kid, so it’s just a bump in the road.”

Arena wasn’t the only incumbent alderman to lose his seat Tuesday. Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) and Ald. Joe Moore (49th) also lost their seats outright.

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Below are the voter turnouts by precinct in the 45th Ward during the Feb. 26 election. Out of 35,102 registered voters in Chicago’s 45th Ward a total of 14,567, or 41.5 percent, voted during the Feb. 26, 2019 election.

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