Protestors, Fioretti debate housing pitch
Picket line targets alderman because of TIF subsides for Loop-based companies
12/16/2009 10:00 PM
Hundreds of activists picketed Ald. Robert Fioretti’s downtown office Tuesday, demanding he co-sponsor an ordinance next year that would set aside 20 percent of the money stationed in the city’s tax increment financing districts for new affordable housing.
The picketers targeted Fioretti in part because he has backed tax increment financing grants for a number of profitable Loop-based corporations in 2009, from Willis Holding Ltd. and United Airlines to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group and MillerCoors.
In all, nearly $92 million in TIF funds have flowed to 10 Loop corporate entities since 2000, according to research released by The Sweet Home Chicago Coalition, which organized the protest and is pushing for the 20 percent set-aside.
That chunk of money is enough to pay for 2,944 units of affordable housing, the coalition claims.
Tax increment financing districts are designed to create economic development in blighted areas, using new property taxes collected above a base rate within the boundaries of the district. Chicago has 153 TIF districts, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.
“Ald. Fioretti we think is someone who should support this,” Julie Dworkin, policy director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said of the affordable housing bill. “We think if he can sign off on TIF funding for all these wealthy corporations he certainly should support TIF funding for people who really need it.”
The coalition’s ordinance has yet to be introduced into council. Dworkin listed four of the city’s 50 aldermen as sponsors thus far, including Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who represents parts of the West Loop and Near West Side.
In an interview Tuesday, Burnett said he was “supporting the idea” of marking 20 percent of TIF funds for affordable units.
Developers who accept TIF support must price 20 percent of units in their project affordably, or else pay $100,000 for each affordable unit not developed into the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity fund, according to city code.
But that’s not happening right now in the sluggish housing market, with the pipeline of new private housing basically dried up, Burnett said.
“Right now, nobody’s building market rate housing, which means in the near future if we’re going to use TIF in this way, we’re not going to get affordable housing,” he said. “With all the foreclosures going on, with people losing their homes, people are going to need more affordable housing.”
Burnett acknowledged that a new affordable housing ordinance might be different from what the campaigners are pushing for and that flexibility would be required to garner support from a majority of council members.
“I think we can come to a point of agreement there,” he said. “I can’t speak for the advocates. Me and my position, being one of the lead supporters on this, I probably would want to talk to them to get a compromise from both sides.”
During much of the picket line Tuesday morning, Fioretti’s office appeared to be empty — no staffers behind the desks. But after a press conference, the alderman arrived with an aide and waded into the fray.
“The TIFs, at only 20 percent, let’s say that’s $100 million. That’s a drop in the bucket on what we’re doing across this city,” he said, in terms of affordable housing.
“We’re glad you’re taking it seriously but we want you to say whether or not you’re going to support TIF money for affordable housing,” responded Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“I always have,” Fioretti said.
“Will you support 20 percent of TIF funds to be used for affordable housing?” Shurna asked.
“Where does the affordable housing get built?” Fioretti said.
Someone yelled, “All over the city!”
But Fioretti said TIF-backed projects could not be built everywhere, just TIF districts.
“Wherever TIF districts go,” Shurna answered.
“That’s right. So now what we’re saying is we want affordable housing throughout the city,” Fioretti said.
The protestors began chanting and yelling for Fioretti to support their ordinance, as he and Shurna continued to debate.
Soon, the chant became, “Yes or no! Yes or no!”
Later, Fioretti defended his support for TIF money for corporations, saying each grant guaranteed professional jobs downtown, in turn creating business for retailers and restaurants and generating additional taxes and fees.
He said the protestors were overlooking TIF dollars spent on projects like parks, street resurfacings and schools in his ward.
“I want to meet with everyone and draft a comprehensive ordinance that deals with affordable housing throughout the city, not in the TIF districts,” he said.
To Stephanie Hooker, 59, more money needs to be spent on affordable housing.
“I think it’s unfair,” said Hooker, a resident of an affordable housing complex for women called Deborah’s Place. “We have to help people who need affordable housing, rather than people who have money.”