DOWNTOWN — Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed Friday to end “poverty in Chicago in a generation,” saying that government must act boldly to undo the policies it created that force tens of thousands of Chicagoans to struggle daily to find food, clothing and shelter.
“Poverty is killing us,” Lightfoot said. “Literally and figuratively killing us. All of us.”
Lightfoot exhorted a standing-room only crowd at an luncheon hosted by the City Club of Chicago to join the fight that she cast as an existential battle not only for Chicago’s future, but also its soul.
“Walk with me on this mission of a lifetime,” Lightfoot urged the crowd, telling them she was called to act by her Christian faith and her childhood growing up poor in an Ohio town left reeling from the closure of nearby steel mills.
Lightfoot acknowledged that some might question why she was picking this fight — especially as the city is likely to face a budget deficit approaching $1 billion for the second year in a row this fall while officials work to reverse a recent spike in crime and violence.
“I am called to this challenge because if I look away, I am denying a part of myself, a part of my story, my history,” Lightfoot said. “So, when I look at this challenge, I think ‘there but for the Grace of God, go I.’”
Approximately 22 percent of Chicagoans fall below the Federal Poverty Level, which is an annual income of $26,200 for a family of four, according to federal guidelines.
“And this crushing economic reality for our neighbors is a fact that is essentially unchanged for the last 20 years,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot dismissed suggestions that “global macro-economic forces” were responsible for Chicago’s intractable poverty rate, saying that was too easy of an explanation.
“We did this historically by using government as a tool to create and enforce race-based discrimination that killed, crushed, and systematically reduced the lives of too many over generations,” Lightfoot said. “A whole infrastructure, perfected over time, and savagely enforced for centuries which at its core embraced an ethos that black and brown, Asian and indigenous lives did not matter, period.”
Lightfoot said that meant it was up to those same institutions to correct those injustices.
“Government and we the people created this monstrous problem, and we the people must solve it,” Lightfoot said. “Poverty is at the heart of many of our woes.”
Lightfoot said by acting “boldly and decisively” Chicago could experience “growth that is truly comprehensive and inclusive, and fully accessible.”
Lightfoot said equitable growth was the key to reversing Chicago’s population decline.
“The truth is that we have been experiencing population loss in Black Chicago for many years,” Lightfoot said. “And now we’re seeing Latino families being pushed out by displacement pressures, while we’re seeing a growth in white college educated residents.
Lightfoot said “housing discrimination and the absence of affordable choices have been central to creating poverty in Chicago,” and pledged to introduce a “holistic” package of measures designed to reduce generational poverty — while using the mayor’s bully pulpit to encourage civic groups and businesses to join her effort to “transform the economic map of our city.”
“One thing is not going to get it done,” Lightfoot told reporters after the speech. “Two things may not get it done. But thinking intentionally about the entire ecosystem and putting together a package of solutions, I think will make a specific difference, particularly when we talk about housing.”
Lightfoot said she would back a measure mandating “just cause evictions.” preventing landlords from evicting tenants without justification with only 30 days’ notice.
Approximately 25 percent of tenants who are evicted in Chicago are done so without cause, causing physical and mental stress, the mayor said.
“They are basically told get out and have no time whatsoever to get themselves organized and find a new place to live,” Lightfoot said. “Thirty days is not enough time.
Lightfoot said she was not sure how much time tenants should be given to move. She promised to consult with tenants’ rights organizations as well as property owners.
In addition, Lightfoot said she would support a city ordinance modeled on Cook County’s new law known as the Just Housing ordinance, which prohibits apartment owners from running criminal background checks on housing applicants until after the applicants have already been deemed qualified based on their income and credit history
That law is needed to help formerly incarcerated Chicagoans find a place to live when they are released from prison, Lightfoot said.
Approximately 55 percent of Chicago men who are homeless were once incarcerated, and 39 percent of homeless women were also once incarcerated, Lightfoot said.
While both measures are likely to be warmly embraced by progressives on the City Council, groups representing business organizations and landlord groups are likely to launch a concerted effort to prevent them from becoming law.
After the county board passed the Just Housing ordinance, a dispute over how to implement the law left it in limbo for months.
However, Lightfoot said she did not support rent control, which is banned in Chicago by a state law that progressive lawmakers have been working to overturn for several years.
“I don’t think that is the right tool,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot also pledged to use the city’s newly up-and-running Office of Labor Standards to protect home nurse aides and home day-care workers.
Lightfoot said she would keep the focus on her efforts to eradicate poverty by convening a summit on Thursday in an effort to craft “a first-of-its-kind community-centered plan to end poverty in a generation.”
Lightfoot ended her speech by reminding the crowd of Chicago’s elite in explicit terms that the city’s future was at stake.
“Walk with me on this mission of a lifetime,” Lightfoot said, as the crowd rose in a standing ovation.