PI Original Angela Caputo Tuesday December 15th, 2009, 4:34pm

Some Affordable Housing Rumblings

Last spring, Housing Action Illinois put the affordable housing
crisis in context when it reported that a staggering 49 percent of
households in the state cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment at "fair market rent" ($893 a month). Despite this overwhelming need, local...

Last spring, Housing Action Illinois put the affordable housing crisis in context when it reported that a staggering 49 percent of households in the state cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment at "fair market rent" ($893 a month). Despite this overwhelming need, local, state, and federal officials have been slow to respond. While hundreds of new units are stuck (PDF) on the drawing board, a growing number of families are heading to homeless shelters.

This week, however, we saw some new reporting and emerging activism on the issue. Here's a round-up of the latest news.

You Call This "Transformation"?

"We are very concerned with the affordable housing crisis," John McDermott of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association said to Tribune reporter Cynthia Dizikes.  He and other affordable housing advocates certainly should be.

In an article published over the weekend, Dizikes looked back at Mayor Richard Daley's 10-year Chicago Housing Authority  Plan for Transformation, which green-lit the destruction of thousands of Chicago's high-rise public housing units with the goal of replacing them with mixed-income developments. While the plan was originally scheduled to wind down in 2010, it turns out that 62 percent of the "replacement" units for displaced low-income families have yet to be built.

Moreover, a local advocacy group found that many of the rehabbed units leave much to be desired:

The September report, by the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, also reported that some rehabs had been superficial, leaving certain projects with the same problems -- concentrated poverty, crime issues, physical isolation, and limited access to public transportation, retail shops and jobs.

"Our issue with the rehabbed communities is that while they may have been physically rehabbed that does not address the problems of concentrated poverty and isolation," said Julie Brown, senior staff counsel for the advocacy group.

TIF, Corporate Welfare, And Ald. Fioretti

In an effort to spark the construction of more units, the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition is continuing to pressure aldermen to set aside 20 percent of future tax increment financing (TIF) funds for affordable housing. Today they paid a visit to Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward).  As the Reader's Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke point out in their latest TIF investigation, wealthy sections of his downtown ward -- and the deep-pocketed corporations that inhabit it -- have been showered with TIF dollars despite scant evidence that the neighborhood is any way "blighted."

By the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless' (CCH) count, Fioretti has endorsed more than half of the $91.8 million in subsidies handed over to the Loop-based companies over the past decade. For some context, the coalition points out in a new report (PDF) that, had the same amount been committed to affordable housing projects, the city could have built new units for 2,944 people. Instead, a series of wealthy companies -- who have averaged $5 billion in profits over the past five years -- collected the TIF subsidies, in many cases to renovate their swank offices. You can read CCH's full analysis here (PDF).

Critics have called the giveaways what they are: corporate welfare.  But today Fioretti disagreed.  "They say 'corporate welfare,' that's not true," he told demonstrators, "That's not true."

Ursula Przybys, an SEIU Local 1 member who cleans downtown highrises in Fioretti's ward, spoke to her fellow protesters this morning. She noted how average Chicagoans like herself are struggling to pay their property taxes, which are being driven up by the mayor's ever-growing "slush fund." Watch her remarks:


An Opportunity In Congress

While frustration grows at the local level, affordable housing advocates are also pinning some hope on a spending measure making its way through Capitol Hill. Members of the House and Senate are beginning to move the FY 2010 Department of Defense appropriations bill this week. Included in the measure is a $1 billion investment in the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF). If kept intact, that money would eventually be divvied up (PDF) across the country (along with an extension of unemployment benefits and additional COBRA health coverage subsidies, food stamps, and Medicaid support).

By Housing Action's count, Illinois could snag $43 million as a result. Those funds could potentially help build 473 units, creating an estimated 649 construction jobs -- 163 of which would be permanent. Director Bob Palmer explains the significance on the state's affordable housing stock:

One of the great things about the National Housing Trust Fund is that the funds are specifically targeted, primarily for rental housing for extremely low-income households - the people who have the greatest affordability problems, in general.

An appropriation this year would mark the first time money has been committed to the NHTF since its creation in 2008. To put the potential impact in perspective, the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund (which is generated through a portion of the real estate transfer tax) collected $41.4 million last year. In essence, Palmer tells us, the new pot of federal money would double the amount that affordable housing developers can tap into over the coming year.

To see the measure through, our friends over at Heartland Alliance's Poverty to Opportunity Campaign are urging Illinoisans to ring up Sen. Dick Durbin and their congressmen to see that the bill is enacted quickly. Check out their action alert here.

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