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Emails Reveal How Lightfoot Closed A Backroom Deal To Hand Public Housing Land Over To A Billionaire’s Sports Team

On the campaign trail, Mayor Brandon Johnson promised to end selloffs of public housing land like the CHA's deal with the Chicago Fire. But now, he won't comment.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto at a groundbreaking ceremony on the Near West Side.
Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — During her final months in office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot teamed with the Chicago Housing Authority to seal a backroom land deal before successor Brandon Johnson would have a chance to stop it, a Block Club Chicago investigation found.

On the campaign trail, Johnson vowed to end such selloffs of public housing land. But since his May inauguration, the new mayor has declined to talk about the CHA’s deal with the Chicago Fire soccer team, and some of his top allies say he may not be able to undo it.

Under the deal, the Fire will lease 23 acres on the Near West Side for at least 40 years so the team can build a new training facility on the site. The Fire are owned by Joe Mansueto, a billionaire business leader and Lightfoot campaign donor

The federal government has long reserved that land for housing, so by law federal officials have to ensure any sale or lease of it is in the “best interest” of low-income residents. 

But as Lightfoot’s time as mayor dwindled, the CHA struggled to justify the deal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to hundreds of pages of emails and other records acquired by Block Club.

The CHA promised HUD it would fulfill 20-year-old commitments to build more than 1,200 additional housing units on the Near West Side — but never said where or when, Block Club found. More than 50,000 people are on the CHA’s waiting lists for apartments or rental assistance.

Still, the CHA argued that it didn’t need the land offered to the Fire. After months of discussions, HUD officials signed off on the deal.

Three weeks later, the CHA board gave the agency’s CEO, Tracey Scott, a $50,000 raise from her last contract, to $300,000 a year. She then announced her intention to pursue more deals for the CHA’s public housing land.

Housing advocates have called on Johnson to meet with them and to halt the handoff of land to the Fire. This spring a coalition of groups filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the deal.

Now Johnson has said he can’t comment since the lawsuit is pending. 

And work at the site has started.

Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago
Bulldozers have started working on the 23-acre site the Chicago Housing Authority leased to the Chicago Fire for the team’s new practice facility.

Land of Broken Promises

Just southeast of Roosevelt Road and Ashland Avenue, the 23-acre site is now enclosed in fencing; behind it bulldozers and trucks have begun environmental cleanup work to prepare for the soccer facility. The University of Illinois Chicago is a few blocks to the north and east. The Near West Side is gentrifying, as is Pilsen to the south.

The CHA land has been empty for nearly two decades because of broken promises.

It was once part of the ABLA Homes, a group of four developments where 3,600 families lived. After launching its citywide Plan for Transformation in 2000, the CHA demolished most of the ABLA buildings and displaced thousands of residents. Officials announced plans to replace ABLA with a new mixed-income community called Roosevelt Square, which would include 2,441 new and 455 rehabbed homes. They also promised that displaced residents would have a right to return.

Two decades later, fewer than half of the new units have been finished. And the properties that were rehabbed, in sections of ABLA known as the Brooks Homes and Loomis Courts, need to be fixed up again. 

Most of the displaced residents never came back.

In 2021, Mansueto asked the city for help finding a large site where his team could build a new practice facility. Lightfoot offered several properties owned by the CHA. They settled on the land at ABLA.

Though the CHA is formally an independent government body, its CEO and board members are picked by — and answer to — the mayor.

After Lightfoot decided to turn over the ABLA site to the Fire, the CHA never solicited any other bids or proposals for the land to see if they could get a better deal.

Scott endorsed Lightfoot’s plan for the ABLA property, calling it a way to bring jobs and investment to the community. The CHA leader also suggested that without proceeds from the deal, the CHA might not have the money to repair its existing properties.

“By repurposing this land in partnership with the Chicago Fire, CHA can secure substantial and much-needed funds to rehabilitate our housing, with the remaining ABLA Brooks Homes and Loomis Courts as top priorities,” Scott wrote in a letter to leaders of the official ABLA residents’ group in early 2022.

By implication, if the tenant leaders wanted to save existing public housing — and their own homes — they should support the deal. 

CHA officials and representatives for the Fire held a series of meetings with ABLA residents, promising additional community benefits including a new basketball court, better parking facilities and the rehab of a community center.

“Since the inception of the performance center project, we have been highly engaged with residents and key stakeholders on the Near West Side to ensure the performance center has a positive impact on the community,” a Fire spokesperson wrote in a statement to Block Club.

After initially voicing skepticism, leaders of the ABLA residents’ group endorsed the deal.

Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago
Housing activists and Near West Side residents call on Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Chicago Housing Authority to stop the CHA’s deal with the Chicago Fire soccer team at a prayer vigil on July 20, 2023.

No Details? No Problem

Last spring and fall, the CHA board, the city’s Plan Commission, the City Council’s zoning committee and the full council all advanced the CHA’s deal with the Fire — even though none of them had seen the full agreement in writing, including key details such as what the team would pay. 

But in September, the CHA shared some of that information with HUD when it applied for federal approval of the deal. The application showed the CHA had undertaken a limited process to determine what the land was worth and how to get the best deal for it. 

The CHA and Fire had each commissioned a single appraisal to determine the value of the ABLA site, the records showed. The parties then split the difference and “compromised” on the amount of annual rent the team would pay. In addition, the Fire promised to make a series of payments for “community investments,” including housing renovations — though that money was offset by the CHA agreeing to bear the cost of environmental cleanup.

In total, the CHA was guaranteed about $30 million over the first 30 years of the deal, according to the agreement; negotiations and the rate of inflation would determine the payments for at least 10 more years beyond that. 

At first HUD officials emailed the CHA questions and even suggested the CHA get another independent appraisal of the land. Ultimately, though, they didn’t challenge the terms of the deal or push the CHA to undertake a competitive bidding process.

The CHA’s application to HUD also showed the agency was struggling to explain how the deal was in the “best interests” of its residents or other low-income families — a legal requirement for any selloff of public housing land. The CHA also had to demonstrate that it no longer needed the land for new homes.

HUD officials repeatedly asked the CHA to submit additional information or answer more questions. In most cases, when the CHA appeared to be flailing, the feds offered them guidance in emails or phone calls. They made it clear they had no intention of blocking the deal. 

“Can you provide a justification narrative for the disposition?” a HUD official asked in an Oct. 5 email. “I need to include a short narrative on this in the approval letter.”

Ann McKenzie, the CHA’s director for development, responded that the authority would use some of the proceeds to rehab the Brooks Homes and Loomis Courts parts of ABLA. The CHA also suggested that it needed the money because HUD didn’t provide enough.

“Our present and future needs — and the housing needs of low-income families — woefully outpace the proposed federal funding amounts. To help address this demand, CHA must use all available tools to fund quality affordable housing and build communities.”

Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a groundbreaking event for the Chicago Fire training center on the Near West Side.

Follow The Mansueto Money

By mid-fall, the politics around City Hall were shifting. Lightfoot’s popularity had waned, in part because she had backed down from a number of progressive promises. Crime had also spiked while homelessness grew more visible. Eventually, eight challengers tried to unseat her. 

Johnson formally launched his campaign in October. A Cook County commissioner and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, Johnson cast himself as a true progressive. Like most of the other challengers, he called for more funding for affordable housing and support services to prevent homelessness. Johnson also vowed to stop CHA land deals like the Fire agreement. 

“We cannot allow public land intended for housing to be auctioned off to the highest bidder or to political allies,” his campaign website stated. Other mayoral candidates made similar promises.

On Nov. 17, Mansueto donated $25,000 to Lightfoot’s reelection fund.

In a statement at the time, a Lightfoot campaign spokesperson praised Mansueto as “a socially responsible leader in Chicago’s business community” who had invested in city neighborhoods. The statement also rejected the notion of a quid pro quo: “Government decision-making is firewalled from political campaign activities.” 

In December, the CHA’s McKenzie followed up with Andres Acosta, a HUD official reviewing the Fire deal. She wondered when she might expect a letter of approval.

“Any news on timing?” McKenzie wrote.

“Hi Ann, I don’t believe we’ll be getting this out for another few weeks, likely mid-January at this point,” Acosta responded.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is received by supporters after giving her concession speech at her election night gathering on Feb. 28, 2023.

Shut Out

The mayoral election began to heat up after the new year. In Chicago’s election system, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, the top two finishers advance to a runoff. Most polls showed Lightfoot would be lucky to make it.

CHA officials again followed up with HUD.

“Any news on timing?” McKenzie wrote Acosta on Jan. 9. 

Acosta responded that he would get back to her as soon as he had any. HUD officials then kept asking McKenzie to come up with new language to justify the deal.

In early February, one of HUD’s top administrators in the Midwest told Lightfoot directly that the CHA had to show how the deal complied with fair housing and civil rights laws, according to an email he sent the CHA.

Soon after, in its responses to those questions, the CHA provided data showing that the agency had never fulfilled its promises to redevelop ABLA. Officials also indicated that most of the residents displaced from ABLA during the Plan for Transformation had not come back and never would. 

Yet on Feb. 28, as the polls closed in the city election, McKenzie wrote HUD that turning over public housing land to the Fire would actually “help stave off gentrification in a growing area.” 

That same day, Lightfoot finished third in the voting for mayor, shutting her out of the runoff and ending her bid for a second term.

Credit: Provided
A rendering of the Chicago Fire soccer facility being developed on the Near West Side.

Finally, A Fed Blessing

In the days after the mayor’s defeat, HUD informed McKenzie that the CHA still needed to come up with an “adjusted justification narrative” to get federal approval for the Fire agreement. 

At just after noon on Friday, March 3, McKenzie received an email from James Isaacs, another HUD official who was reviewing the CHA’s application. 

Isaacs knew the CHA well: He had served as its director of real estate development and then director of capital construction from 1999 through 2014, a period that included the first decade of the Plan for Transformation, according to his LinkedIn page.

“I am curious if you have had a chance to formulate a justification that speaks directly to 24 CFR 970.17(d)?” Isaacs wrote, referring to the federal law that spells out when HUD is allowed to approve the sale or lease of public housing land.

“Was just about to call you,” McKenzie wrote him back.

Two hours later, McKenzie emailed HUD a map of the neighborhood around the Fire site and explained that the CHA would build new housing in a smaller area than previously planned. Her email did not say exactly where or when the homes would be constructed or how they would be paid for.

“CHA does not need the land described in the disposition application,” she wrote.

It was essentially another open-ended promise to build housing, with few clear commitments. But after months of back and forth, it was good enough for HUD.

McKenzie’s last email was sent on Friday afternoon. On the following Monday, March 6, HUD sent the CHA a letter signing off on the deal with the Fire. 

HUD has not blocked any of the CHA’s land deals in at least a decade.

Once the CHA had HUD’s consent, Scott finalized the official agreement with the Fire. 

Like Johnson, spokespeople for the CHA and HUD said they couldn’t comment for this story because the land deal has been challenged in federal court.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Brandon Johnson answers questions from journalist Laura Washington during a campaign forum hosted by Block Club Chicago on March 15, 2023.

Public Housing Promises

With Lightfoot out, the two remaining candidates for mayor tried to convince voters they had plans for dealing with critical issues such as crime and homelessness. 

Paul Vallas, who finished on top in the first round, vowed to put more police on the streets. He said little about the deal with the Fire, but called for the CHA to build more housing and face more accountability. 

Trailing in the polls, Johnson promised to address the root causes of crime with more social services and affordable housing. He reiterated his pledge to enact a freeze on the CHA’s land deals. 

“Where public housing used to exist, we should build public housing there again,” Johnson said in a Block Club interview on March 15. “I have called for a moratorium on building anything on land that used to be the homes of people in the city of Chicago, particularly public housing.”

A week later, Mansueto gave $250,000 to Vallas’ campaign fund.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right) introduces Tracey Scott (left), CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, during a January event marking the construction of new housing at the CHA’s Roosevelt Square development, previously known as ABLA.

CHA CEO’s Payday

After locking in the deal with the Fire, the CHA board locked in a deal with agency CEO Scott. 

The board met for a livestreamed special meeting on March 28. Soon after the start, the commissioners went into closed session, out of public view. More than 30 minutes later, they reappeared and voted unanimously in favor of the “personnel matters” they had been discussing. The meeting then adjourned.

Finding out what happened required a Freedom of Information Act request. 

The item approved by the board turned out to be a contract extension for Scott. When Lightfoot tapped her for the job in 2020, Scott had signed an agreement to earn $250,000, with 3 percent annual raises and use of a CHA-owned car. The new contract, backdated to Jan. 1, boosted her salary to $300,000, with annual raises of 5 percent through 2025. 

By comparison, the mayor’s salary is set at $216,210 a year.

Under Scott’s contract, if a new mayor decided to replace her, the CHA would have to pay her 20 weeks of severance, or about $115,000.

In a written statement to Block Club, a spokesperson for Lightfoot wrote that Scott’s raise was in the works “well before” the Fire deal was completed: “The two are in no way related.”

Two days later, on March 30, Scott gave a speech praising the Fire agreement and claiming it would bring the CHA “$48 million in much-needed resources” — a figure that far exceeded the $30 million guaranteed in the deal.

Scott also vowed to pursue more deals like it.

“We are seeking more partners. We want to work with more emerging developers and businesses,” she told the City Club, a group of business leaders and professionals. “If you have any ideas then I want to talk to you.”

Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto, CHA CEO Tracey Scott and Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Chicago Fire’s new practice facility on the Near West Side.

A Groundbreaking And A Lawsuit

On April 4, Johnson completed a come-from-behind victory and was elected mayor

Lightfoot and the Fire wasted no time getting the practice facility underway. On April 25, three weeks before leaving office, Lightfoot led a groundbreaking event at the ABLA site. She praised Mansueto as a leader who “cares deeply about his city” and described Scott as “truly the greatest CEO the Chicago Housing Authority has ever had.”

Lightfoot also gave a shoutout to HUD.

“This couldn’t come about without them,” she said. “Thank you for the work you’ve done not only on this project but on every one we’ve come forward with [involving] creative uses of vacant land.”

Lightfoot left office and Johnson was inaugurated on May 15. 

Members of Lightfoot’s administration told Block Club they worked on the Fire agreement with the same urgency they brought to other South and West side projects, including affordable housing developments. They denied rushing so they could keep Johnson from killing the deal.

The Lightfoot administration officials declined to be quoted by name.

“This investment will turn that vacant land into a venue of economic activity, which will benefit local residents and specifically public housing residents,” Lightfoot’s spokesperson wrote to Block Club.

Two weeks after Johnson took office, on June 1, a coalition of housing advocates sued the CHA and HUD in federal court, alleging government officials violated federal civil rights and fair housing laws by approving the Fire deal. The suit argues that the deal could still be stopped.

The CHA, HUD and the mayor’s office all declined to comment on the pending litigation. But in court filings this month, both the CHA and HUD argue the case should be dismissed because federal officials completed their review properly and no one was harmed by the deal. Instead, they argue, the CHA would suffer harm without the money it’s getting from the deal.

Both the CHA and HUD emphasize that the CHA still plans to build more housing — but they don’t say when or how that will happen, especially if the agency is as cash-strapped as they claim.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Brandon Johnson holds media availability at City Hall on Aug. 2, 2023.

A Campaign Promise Forgotten?

In July, Johnson’s transition team released a report outlining the new administration’s priorities and goals. Its section on housing emphasized that decades of harmful policies had led to “underinvestment, gentrification and wholesale demolition of longstanding communities,” especially on the city’s South and West sides.

Among its recommendations, the report called on the CHA to build more homes, reduce vacancies at existing properties and “enact a freeze on transfer of CHA land for non-housing uses.”

But the new mayor didn’t immediately follow up on any of those goals, and by summer some of his top City Council allies said it would be difficult to undo the Fire deal now.

“Once you’ve signed a contract, and once you’ve received council approval, it’s kind of hard to take that back,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Johnson’s council floor leader and handpicked chair of the zoning committee. 

Growing restless, housing advocates held a series of rallies and demonstrations calling on the mayor to step up.

Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago
ABLA resident Laura Donaldson speaks at a prayer vigil for “Justice at ABLA Homes” on Chicago’s Near West Side on July 20, 2023.

One of the protesters was Laura Donaldson, a Brooks Homes resident who lives across the street from the Fire site. A plaintiff in the lawsuit against the deal, she has vowed to keep fighting to stop it.

Donaldson said it’s time for Johnson to deliver on his campaign promises to “invest in people.” 

“I want Brandon to do better,” she said.

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