• Alex Nitkin
    JUN 02, 2022

    Lightfoot promises to push forward on ‘essential’ housing density ordinance facing uneasy City Council

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot touts her “Connected Communities Ordinance” proposal during an event on May 27.

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration balked last week on its expected rollout of a sweeping new proposal to boost housing options near transit and whittle away at the city’s endemic racial segregation.

    The mayor and her top deputies are vowing to push forward after some additional tweaks to the ordinance, which would also blunt aldermen’s powers to veto new housing proposals in their own wards. But as an anxious City Council awaits the final language of the ordinance with reactions ranging from qualified support to outright hostility, nearly everyone can agree on one prediction: the plan won’t survive a vote without a hard-fought battle.

    As currently drafted, the “Connected Communities Ordinance” cobbles together nearly a dozen new rules and policies aimed at supercharging home construction near transit stations and building safer environments for pedestrians in busy corridors. It would also forbid neighborhoods from banning new two-flats or three-flats in wealthy, transit-rich parts of the city, and it would prevent aldermen from stifling affordable housing proposals via pocket veto.  

    Lightfoot teased the ordinance at a May 20 event, saying the ordinance would “advance the city's racial equity, affordable housing, economic development, public health and climate action goals through development near transit.”  

    However, asked one week later why the proposal never made it into the light of day at last week’s City Council meeting, the mayor cited “some additional refinement that we needed to make sure that we had right before we introduce it.”  

    “We don't always introduce something saying that it's perfect, and we ‘want this to be the form in which it's presented to City Council and considered,’” Lightfoot said on Friday. “There's always some back-and-forth, always a little bit of tweaking, but there's a little more work that we needed to do. But my expectation is that we will introduce it and start the conversation.”  

    A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Housing added in a statement on Wednesday that “[g]iven the technical details in the proposed Connected Communities Ordinance and the questions that have arisen in recent days, we pushed back our target introduction to June to give us time to do additional education and outreach around the contents of the ordinance for an informed vote in committee and in the full Council.”  

    “The Mayor is committed to introducing the ordinance at the June 22 council meeting,” the spokesperson added.  

    Policy officials told The Daily Line earlier this month that they “spent over a year working with aldermen, their staff [and] community members” to vet and workshop the ideas offered in the ordinance. But multiple aldermen said this week that they had not seen recent copies of the plan.  

    Related: New Lightfoot housing mega-ordinance pitches citywide whack at housing segregation, aldermanic prerogative  

    As drafted ahead of last week, the ordinance would double the footprint of the city’s transit-oriented development (TOD) zones where developers are allowed to seize on density bonuses and waive requirements for on-site parking. It also includes a handful of measures designed to crack down on parking and car use within walking distance of any transit station, and it would allow three-flats to be built by right within a half-mile of any train station or busy bus line in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.  

    City housing officials described the ordinance as an attempt to crystallize their 2021 “Equitable Transit-Oriented Development” (ETOD) policy roadmap into the city code.  

    “ETOD is essential to our city,” Lightfoot said on Friday. “We've got to make sure we've got real options of affordability, particularly for families, and that we're doing it in a way that is consistent with…our obligations to make sure we're providing sustainable options — sustainable not just in affordability, but sustainable to reduce our carbon footprint.” 

    Policy wonks and transit advocates lit up social media last month with praise for the early details of the ordinance. They included Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, who called the mayor’s proposal “heartening” and said it would put Chicago “at the cutting edge of municipal policy.”  

    Freemark, who was a project manager at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council from 2013 to 2016, published a research paper in 2020 that found the city’s 2013 and 2015 transit-oriented development policies boosted local property values without necessarily juicing construction of new homes, threatening to accelerate displacement in gentrifying areas. But Lightfoot’s proposal would represent a “wholesale improvement” over the Emanuel-era rules because doubling the TOD zones would mean “the market forces that encouraged an inflation in housing values” near transit in 2015 would be “spread across much more of the city, making that impact much less likely to occur,” he said.  

    “You’re not likely to see generalized increases in property values if it’s been applied citywide, and that’s different from what happened in 2013 and 2015,” Freemark said. He added that the latest plan’s “targeted approach” of concentrating most zoning deregulation in wealthier neighborhoods would likely soften displacement pressures.  

    Most aldermen have remained tight-lipped about the proposal, but many have grumbled privately about its potential consequences — especially if parking is capped and three-flats are allowed across an area that encompasses most of the city’s North and Northwest Sides.  

    Ald. Harry Osterman (48), who chairs the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate, said when asked for his stance on the ordinance that he is “looking closely at it and want[s] to make sure that there’s equity” in the plan. He declined to elaborate.  

    Ald. Daniel La Spata (1) told The Daily Line on Tuesday that he hopes to be an advocate for the ordinance when it hits inevitable resistance in the City Council.  

    “It makes a lot of sense for us to find ways to encourage density responsibly and encourage affordability, particularly close to transit,” La Spata said. “I think it makes a lot of sense to encourage two- to three-flat housing around transit…maintaining the kind of density we see on our neighborhood streets feels really important, and I respect how this ordinance is trying to accomplish that.”  

    He especially praised a plank of the proposal that would also extend the “anti-deconversion” rules (O2020-6206, O2020-6207) that took hold in Pilsen and the 606 area last year so that they apply to all homes in multifamily zoning districts within a half-mile of transit in pricey neighborhoods. La Spata has championed that policy and called for its expansion to other neighborhoods.  

    Related: One year on, backers of controversial anti-gentrification measures take victory lap as teardowns, gut-jobs plummet  

    But he also noted that the 606-area legislation was paired with an ordinance (O2021-746) that charged fees on local demolitions — an addition that should be included in the mayor’s new plan, he said.  

    “I think [demolition is] the one piece that we need to solve for,” La Spata said. “There’s so much that’s really good in this ordinance, that I would hate for it to have the unintended consequence of essentially encouraging the demolition of a lot of existing, reasonably dense housing.”  

    Ald. Matt Martin (47), who was a key architect of 2020 legislation (O2020-2850) allowing the construction of coach houses and basement additions — known as accessory dwelling units — in Chicago, expressed a similar openness to the new proposal but stopped short of staking a position, saying the ordinance had not been shared with him. He also said he was wary of any policy that could inadvertently speed up demolitions in his ward, which has been hollowed out by gut-jobs in recent decades.  

    Related: Aldermen approve coach house ordinance  

    “I’ll be interested to talk to my colleagues, especially in Pilsen and [around the] 606, about to what extent they’ve seen interest in multi-unit buildings being put up, as opposed to deconversions,” Martin said. “This has been very area-to-area, and I really want to hear from our city departments, as well as [researchers] to understand what, specifically, this means for the 47th Ward.”  

    Another alderman told The Daily Line on condition of anonymity that they think allowing three-flats by right near transit “makes total sense” but flagged other “concerns” in the ordinance, including a proposed limit of one parking space for every two units in new developments near transit — a cap the alderman called “too tight.”  

    “Listen, parking’s still important,” the person said, adding that they were open to negotiation on the threshold. “It seems like this policy’s built for Logan Square.”  

    The City Council member also chaffed at a provision that would put up a regulatory barrier for anyone looking to carve a new driveway into any street inside a TOD zone.  

    “I’ve got so many empty lots…it’s terrible,” the alderman said of an area within four blocks of a CTA station. “And you’re telling me I can’t put a…Wendy’s drive-thru there?”  

    But Freemark defended the proposed crackdown on car use, saying policymakers should prioritize walkability near transit stations.  

    “If you want to create neighborhoods in Chicago or any other city that are nice places to walk around, then you can’t be cutting up the sidewalk every 100 feet with a drive-thru,” the policy researcher said. “That just degrades the pedestrian experience and makes it less comfortable for people to walk around.” 

    Other aldermen were taken aback by a provision in a draft of the ordinance circulated on May 11 that would have lowered the vote threshold for Chicago Plan Commission approvals from a simple majority to one-third of commissioners for any affordable proposal that has been kept on ice for six months or more.  

    Lightfoot acknowledged last week that earning 26 votes for the proposal will “not be easy.”  

    “There are going to be lots of questions and lots of folks who line up with the NIMBYism and say, ‘not in my backyard,’” the mayor said Friday. “So we want to make sure the launch of this is the start of a conversation to have.”  

    Freemark said he’ll be watching the political process closely.  

    “It sounds like the [mayor’s] administration has a clear sense of what it means to generate a more walkable, transit-friendly and affordable city,” he said. “The question in my mind is whether a majority of the City Councilors agree. If they are unwilling to put forward this [ordinance] and pass it, then I really question their commitment to creating a more equitable, affordable city.” 

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