PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday November 12th, 2014, 4:34pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: SRO Ordinance, Treasurer Appointment & Pot-Ticketing Hearings

Progress Illinois details the highlights from Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

At Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting, aldermen approved an ordinance meant to curb the loss of single room occupancy (SRO) housing in the city.

Over the past three years, some 2,000 affordable SRO units in the city have been lost to market-rate development, according to the Chicago For All coalition, which worked on the ordinance in cooperation with the mayor's office.

The ordinance, approved by a 47-2 vote, will be a big help in preserving a shrinking supply of SRO units, but there remains much work ahead to tackle the city's affordable housing crisis, aldermen and housing activists said.

"Without this ordinance, more people would be thrown out in the street and become homeless," Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, told reporters after the meeting. "But our work is far from complete ... We need more affordable housing for people who are working, but can't afford a place to live."

On the council floor, Chicago mayoral candidate and 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti applauded the ordinance, but said the next step is ensuring all neighborhoods have adequate affordable housing.

"We all know this is just ... barely getting to the problem," the alderman said of the SRO ordinance.

Shurna acknowledged that only a small segment of the city's available affordable housing is impacted by the measure.

"But I'm glad that we're saving that small segment," he stressed. "It's often the housing of last resort for people. As we move forward from today, we have to stop the bleeding. We have to stop demolishing housing that's affordable. We have to do more than that. We have to start building housing that is affordable."

In July, the Chicago City Council agreed to place a six-month moratorium on converting SROs to market-rate housing so the city could continue working with various stakeholders to develop a permanent plan to address the issue. Then in September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with Alds. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ameya Pawar (47th) introduced the "Single-Room Occupancy and Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance."

The council today approved a weaker version of the ordinance, which was tweaked to appease SRO building owners. Even after the changes, SRO owners have expressed displeasure with the measure, saying it is too financially burdensome. Pawar, however, said the new "compromise" legislation "balances the playing field for lots of people" and "protects the rights of property owners, so we're not ending up in court."

Emanuel described the ordinance as a "win-win compromise that achieves the goal" of preserving SRO units in a "respectful" way.

"I want to thank the community groups for actually sitting at the table, working through and using this time of the moratorium so ... that we can then come to this moment, and also make it as a part of a downpayment of an overall strategy of affordable housing for all residents in the city of Chicago," the mayor said on the council floor, adding that raising the minimum wage will also be crucial to that effort.

After stating his support for the SRO proposal on the council floor, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) also called attention to the minimum wage issue.

"We need to tackle the minimum wage in this city, in this state, and come up with something fair," he said. "We all know the folks that are living in these SROs are making the minimum wage -- at best. But the minimum wage is not good enough. So let's continue that fight as well."

Under the ordinance approved Wednesday, owners wishing to sell SRO buildings have a few options. First, they could participate in "good faith negotiations" with potential buyers who are committed to preserving affordable housing in the building for at least 15 years. A building owner would have to allow at least 180 days for such negotiations to take place.

If a building owner and an offering party fail to reach an agreement, the owner would have an additional 120 days to find another buyer. If no purchase agreement occurs the second time around, the owner would have to keep trying to sell the building to a buyer committed to maintaining affordable units. The ordinance provides building owners with a one-year window to close on a building sale.

Owners looking to convert SRO buildings to market-rate housing could do so, but they would have to pay a "preservation fee" to the city's SRO Improvement and Stabilization Program. The fee would be $20,000 for each unit at the property. Fees paid to the SRO fund would be used to "provide incentives such as forgivable loans for the purpose of rehabilitating SROs" and "on-site, city-funded social and case management services," among other measures.

SRO building owners would have to provide a one-time relocation payment of between $2,000 and $8,600 to long-term tenants who have lived at the property for 32 straight days and are permanently displaced after a sale. Building owners that opt to pay into the preservation fund would have to provide that higher $8,600 relocation payment to displaced, long-term tenants.

Additionally, tenants who are ordered to vacate an SRO due to unsafe building conditions would be eligible for $10,600 in relocation assistance from property owners.

Building owners who have applied for city permits on or before June 25 to demolish or convert an SRO building to market-rate housing are exempt from the measure.

Alds. Mary O'Connor (41st) and Carrie Austin (34th) voted against the SRO plan.

When asked after the meeting why she did not support the ordinance, Austin said, "It's not a big no."

"I'm supportive, but I just believe that enough consideration wasn't given to veterans" struggling to find housing, she said. "I'm on board, I just need them to go a little bit further."

Other Happenings 

-- The Chicago City Council unanimously confirmed Emanuel's appointment of Kurt Summers, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's former chief of staff, as the city's treasurer. Summers, a senior vice-president of the investment firm Grosvenor Capital Management, will replace Treasurer Stephanie Neely, who announced last month that she will leave her post at the end of November to pursue work in the private sector. Summers' appointment before the February municipal election essentially gives him an advantage over other potential 2015 treasurer candidates.

In a news release, Summers said he is "humbled and honored that the mayor has presented me with this opportunity to serve as the next treasurer of the city of Chicago."

"I intend to bring to the treasurer's office a focus on financial stewardship, accountability, innovation and investment," he added. "This is not a short-term investment for me. I am committed to having a long-term impact, and I will work to earn the support of Chicagoans. I believe, if we leverage our financial capital and capabilities, we can invest in the type of economic development that transforms every neighborhood in the city."

-- Alds. Anthony Beale (9th), Ed Burke (14th) and Danny Solis (25th) called for council hearings on the status of the city's pot-ticketing ordinance, which was adopted in 2012. The ordinance allows police to issue $250 to $500 tickets to people caught with 15 grams or less of pot, instead of arresting them. The aldermen want to know "how effectively the law has been implemented since its adoption," according to a news release. The resolution, calling on police and city budget officials to appear before the joint finance and public safety committee, notes that  "various media outlets have questioned the implementation and effectiveness of the city's approach to policing minor cannabis possession infractions."

"While the Chicago Police Department has clearly made great strides in implementing this law by logging fewer arrests for low levels of cannabis possession, I believe the city council deserves to see all of the statistics first-hand and determine if we have successfully undertaken what this legislation intended," Burke said in the release.

-- The council voted to publish and defer Emanuel's 2015 revenue package and spending plan. The council is slated to take up the mayor's 2015 fiscal plan on November 19.

Workers at Gate Gourmet, an airline catering company, spoke in support of the mayor's budget proposal ahead of today's meeting. The workers, who cook airline food, are happy because it closes the airline jet fuel tax "loophole."

Adam Yalowitz, research analyst with Unite Here Local 1, said airlines have used the "loophole" to avoid paying $17 million in taxes annually.

"We think, as people who cook the food for the airlines who are underpaid, that money could go towards supporting our kids' education," Yalowitz said.

Before the meeting, a few Gate Gourmet workers, with the help of Unite Here leaders, handed out photos of their children to aldermen and city hall staffers with the following message attached: "Workers who cook the food for the airlines are paid too little to support our families. We have about 2,000 children in Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Emanuel's proposal to close the airline jet fuel tax loophole will pay for our children's education."


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