CITY HALL — Two aldermen said Wednesday they are on track to resuscitate a measure next week that would freeze construction near the 606 Bloomingdale Trail as a way of blunting rapid gentrification on the Near Northwest Side.
Alds. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) and Roberto Maldonado (26th) told The Daily Line Wednesday they are working on a series of “tweaks” that would narrow the scope of their sweeping ordinance to ban building permits, demolition permits and zoning changes near the popular elevated trail for 14 months. Proposed changes include carve-outs for affordable housing developments, as well as for minor construction work.
“The intent is not to block building permits to renovate a bathroom,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “It’s not to block permits to renovate a storefront to open up a new business. It’s really about protecting the two and three-flats that are being demolished right now.”
Eugenia Orr, a spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, said the mayor is talking to aldermen about “ways to address the outstanding issues with the ordinance and to partner on expanding access to affordable housing throughout the city” but declined to say whether she would ask her aldermanic allies to block a vote on the measure.
At the end of a regularly scheduled meeting of the council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate on Tuesday, committee chair Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said he planned to hold a special meeting of the committee Jan. 14, but that session has not yet been posted the city’s official meeting schedule as of Wednesday afternoon.
Osterman told reporters that he would “absolutely” call the item for a vote so that it can be approved by the full council Jan. 15 — after Maldonado and Ramirez-Rosa make some “technical amendments” to their ordinance.
“I understand the importance of this issue in [Maldonado’s] community,” Osterman said. “I think there’s a collective effort to work on it, so I’m recessing the committee and we’re giving him a chance to do that. And I’m looking forward to working with him on that as well.”
As currently written, the ordinance would bar the city from granting building permits or zoning changes anywhere inside the boundaries of Hirsch Street, Western Avenue, Palmer Street and Western Avenue between Feb. 1 and March 31, 2021. It makes an exception for “emergency conditions,” as defined by the city’s buildings and health departments.
In the interim, Maldonado said he planned to “commission a study” to “examine the forces which lead to housing instability within the 606 Residential Area” and “issue recommendations on methods of stabilizing housing and promoting the preservation of community within the 606 Residential Area.”
“We’ve been under the threat of gentrification in very aggressive fashion, and it’s time we take drastic measures so we can put a pause on market-rate development that’s causing displacement,” Maldonado told The Daily Line on Wednesday. “Every time a development comes up that is by right [does not need a zoning change], they’re building for more affluent families, for people that do not look like me. We’re sick and tired of that.”
Ramirez-Rosa said he hopes the study can generate ideas for a citywide policy to address the loss of affordable two-flats and three-flats.
The ordinance represents the aldermen’s second attempt at using the city code to slow displacement around the trail, which has juiced surrounding property values since it opened in 2015. In 2017, Maldonado and Ramirez-Rosa partnered with former Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) to introduce a measure that would charge fees on property owners seeking demolition permits near the trail. The proposal was never considered by a City Council committee.
Ramirez-Rosa said he and Maldonado took a different approach this time because they believed it would stand on firmer legal ground. Maldonado added that the sponsors were “very diligent” about working with the city’s law department to make sure it holds up in court.
A spokesperson for the law department did not immediately respond to a request for comment o Wednesday.
However, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward also includes part of the 606, said a lawsuit could instantly “unravel” the measure, even if it is pared down. Waguespack said on Wednesday that he thinks the proposed ordinance is “not a good idea.”
“I think as soon as you tell a property owner they can’t do anything at all with their property, you can show damages,” Waguespack said. “You could walk into federal court and say, ‘They’ve tied up my private property rights in this ordinance,’ and they would have to unravel it just like that.”
Waguespack, who is a member of the council’s housing committee, said he would vote against the measure if it comes up next week.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), whose ward also includes parts of the 606, said on Wednesday that the proposed ordinance “needs some work,” and that he plans to meet with Maldonado to discuss changes.
“We definitely need decisive action to curb demolitions and deconversions, not only in the 606 area, but across the city,” La Spata said. “So my office has been doing research around that, because we want anything that we put forward to be backed by data, and we want to make sure that anything we put forward isn’t just going to come to a legal challenge that keeps it from moving forward.”
Maldonado remains hopeful the measure will be approved as amended next week, as long as opponents “don’t come up with any games to kill the ordinance,” he said. The alderman added that he believes he has Lightfoot’s support, but that “at this point, my level of trust with this administration is very, very, very low.”
The alderman called on Lightfoot to let aldermen oversee housing decisions in their own wards, instead of trying to impose citywide policies.
“They want to go with a comprehensive approach, but a comprehensive approach does not work when it comes to affordable housing,” Maldonado said. “What happens in the 26th Ward is not the same dynamic as the 25th Ward, or…any other ward. One size does not fit all, and to pretend that it is the solution is not going to work.”
“I’m not going to be silenced on this,” Maldonado added. “I’m going to tell the truth about what’s in the interest of the ward, and what I think is right, as the elected representative of the ward.”