Land deal to benefit billionaire’s football team gets beefed up despite objections — ProPublica


Citing years of broken promises to build affordable housing, a Chicago City Council committee has rejected a plan to lease public housing land to a professional football team owned by a billionaire ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

It was Tuesday. Less than a day later, the mayor’s allies called for an overhaul and overturned the vote.

The full city council then voted on Wednesday to approve a zoning change needed to allow the Chicago Fire football team to build a practice facility on the 26-acre site.

A June story by ProPublica detailed how the land was once part of the ABLA Homes, a public housing development on the Near West Side where 3,600 families lived. After demolishing most of the ABLA buildings and displacing thousands of people, the Chicago Housing Authority has pledged to build more than 2,400 new homes in the area. So far he has completed less than a third of it.

Lightfoot offered the ABLA site to the Fire late last year, and CHA’s board approved the plan this spring. It is part of a series of deals the CHA has entered into to sell, lease or dispose of its land for non-residential purposes, including Target stores, a private tennis court and running track and grass field. . The Fires are owned by Joe Mansueto, founder of investment research firm Morningstar.

The zoning change was seen as one of the simplest steps needed to finalize the fire lease, since Lightfoot’s allies control the city commission and council committee that was to sign off. But it turned out that distrust of the CHA led to an embarrassing, if short-lived, setback for the mayor and her team, who had to resort to an unusual ploy for more time.

It is not unprecedented for Chicago mayors to advance their agendas with heavy-handed tactics and calculated legislative maneuvering. For example, former Mayor Richard M. Daley once waited until council was about to adjourn before force the repeal of a law he did not like in just a few minutes. Rahm Emanuel has mastered a long tradition of letting loyal aldermen use committee budgets for patronage and benefits. And Lightfoot fought to keep meetings with aldermen out of public view.

On numerous occasions, aldermen have been known to vote against ordinances they sponsored or pass measures they criticized after receiving calls from the mayor. The revamp is another reminder of how Chicago mayors almost always get what they want.

In defending the deal, the CHA said handing over land – ABLA’s largest open plot – to the fire will not affect its plans for more housing. The agency also said residents will benefit from recreational and employment opportunities during the construction of the fire facility. The team made similar points by describing the deal as an investment in the West Side.

But after years of watching the ACH fall short of its commitments across the city, many housing advocates and aldermen are skeptical. From the start of Tuesday’s zoning committee meeting, the ACH and city officials were playing defensive. “The ACH is way behind its goals,” Alderman Maria Hadden said at the meeting.

With the number of homeless people on the rise and thousands on CHA waiting lists, she said: ‘It’s worrying to see such a slow pace.

“Housing is what we do,” replied Ann McKenzie, CHA’s Director of Development. She said the agency hopes to start building an additional 220 units at ABLA this fall, split between low-income housing and market-rate buyers.

But McKenzie acknowledged that Hadden was right that the agency failed to meet its commitments. Even when the new units are complete, CHA will have delivered less than half of the homes it is obligated to under the court settlements.

McKenzie promised that more housing would be built. To accommodate the land leased to the football team, she said, the CHA would have to concentrate more housing on neighboring blocks. But she argued the Fire deal could bring cash and momentum.

“We actually think it’s an improved plan,” she said.

McKenzie said that under the current proposal, the CHA would receive $8 million up front, plus about $750,000 to $800,000 per year for 40 years.

A group of housing lawyers suggested in a letter to the committee that the plan violated civil rights laws and court orders. McKenzie and a city attorney said the issues would be part of a review by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which must approve any plan to dispose of public housing land.

Alderman Tom Tunney, Lightfoot’s handpicked chairman of the zoning committee, said: “This is a zoning process. This is not for HUD to agree with the land use.

But the aldermen continued to express their frustration with the CHA.

“I come from public housing,” said Alderman David Moore, who grew up in CHA’s Robert Taylor homes and now represents a South Side neighborhood. He wanted to see letters of support for the Fire accord from resident leaders.

McKenzie said she had no letters but assured her CHA had been speaking with resident groups for months.

It wasn’t enough for Moore. “I cannot support this article without a letter of support,” he said.

Alderman Jason Ervin, whose neighborhood includes the Fire site, urged his colleagues to support the zoning change, arguing it would give the community a boost. Still, he said, “the concerns that have been raised are valid given what has happened with the CHA over the past 20 years.”

When Tunney started roll call on Tuesday, it was quickly clear that the measure was in trouble. Seven aldermen – including Hadden and Moore – voted no. Seven committee members were no longer present. And only four joined Tunney in voting yes. The point would not come out of the committee.

But then, minutes later, Tunney announced that the committee would meet again on Wednesday morning to “reconsider the vote.”

With the help of two aldermen who changed their votes, overhauling the CHA-Fire agreement took just minutes.

Tunney began the meeting on Wednesday by announcing that the committee now had letters from resident leaders supporting the fires deal. He asked for a motion to reconsider the first vote.

According to council rules, a vote can only be reconsidered if someone on the winning side moves to do so. Alderman Felix Cardona Jr., who voted against the Fire deal on Tuesday, was ready to introduce the motion. Tunney then called a vote to reconsider the first vote. It went 9-5 with help from Cardona and Moore, who returned the day before.

Alderman Anthony Beale, a Lightfoot critic who cast one of the down votes, accused Tunney of “bending our rules” by holding a second vote on the proposal.

Tunney brushed off the criticism, then announced that Cardona had proposed a vote on moving the Fire plan forward. Cardona had said nothing.

But the committee went ahead with the new vote to advance the zoning change to the full council. This time he approved the Fire deal, 9-5.

Afterwards, Moore said the letters from resident leaders influenced him, while Cardona said Ervin persuaded him that ABLA residents were in favor of the proposal. Still, Cardona said he would make sure council summons CHA officials to a public hearing to explain how they will build more housing.

“As you heard today, all of my colleagues have an issue with CHA,” Cardona said. “So the best thing for us is to get them on the mat and have a serious conversation with them.”

Hours after the committee put forward the fires deal, the full board approved it by a vote of 37 to 11. CHA must now submit the proposed deal to HUD for review.

At a press conference later, Lightfoot said the CHA had done “a great amount of community engagement” in the ABLA neighborhood “to make sure the development really reflected what the community said it needed” . Then she turned to praising Mansueto.

“Joe Mansueto has been very intentional in responding to my call for business people to invest in areas of our city that have seen little or no investment or, frankly, have been divested,” Lightfoot said. “So I’m grateful to Joe Mansueto.”


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