Housing Set-Asides: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In August 2002, Kevin Jackson, director of the Chicago Rehab Network, sent a letter out to network members and supporters to introduce a campaign to win an affordable housing set-aside – a requirement that all private developments over a certain size include a specific percentage of affordable housing. “We only need look west to Colorado for proof that it’s possible to enact such a policy,” he wrote, explaining how Denver had approved an inclusionary zoning law requiring 10 percent affordable units in any development over 30 units.

Denver and Chicago were starting from two different places. In Denver a mayoral taskforce had city support when it proposed an ordinance in 2000. Housing advocates, after feeling out the possibility of a stronger alternative, focused on reducing the definition of affordable housing, from 90 to 110 percent of median income to below 80 percent. They succeeded, putting in place an ordinance that will have a positive effect.

But Chicago is a “developers’ town,” with a strong, pro-developer mayor. There the initiative was on the advocates’ part. The push for housing set-asides began during a conference in June 2001, held by CRN, to plan out a broader campaign called “Valuing Affordability.” Representatives from Boston were invited to talk about their successful housing set-aside program. The approach seemed like one particularly well suited to Chicago’s needs, which far outpace the capacity of city-led development. Housing advocates decided to build it in as one of the major components of their larger plan. The idea, says Jackson, is that affordable housing should be included in all developments. It was an ambitious goal, but one that caught the imagination of people across the city. Three networks – CRN, the Balanced Development Coalition and the Coalition for Fair Community Development – took up the cause.

That summer the city of Chicago also announced that it would hold a series of hearings as part of the process of reforming its 1957 zoning code. Set-aside advocates took that opportunity to introduce the idea of inclusionary zoning, which is a housing set-aside established through the zoning code. They organized members, from dozens to hundreds, to show up at every zoning meeting and ask that the committee zone for affordable housing.

“We were shining a light on the zoning reform and raising the consciousness of the city that there were residents across every neighborhood that wanted affordable housing,” says Jackson.

In the Zone
The argument for inclusionary zoning was strong: We zone for parks, and for parking, said the activists, and make zoning changes for political reasons (read: contributions). Why not for affordable housing?

“Zoning has really been taken advantage of by those with the most means,” says Marla Bramble, senior organizer of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., and member of both the Balanced Development Coalition and CRN.

Set-aside advocates kept the heat on for the full year of hearings, showing up at every meeting. CRN ran full-page newspaper advertisements as the zoning hearings came to a head. There was also a postcard campaign to the aldermen and lots of good old-fashioned door knocking, rallies and marches.

The publicity had a definite effect on the aldermen who were members of the zoning committee. “I used to go to commission meetings and they would spend 35 minutes talking about what do we do about affordable housing,” recalls Jackson. “So I knew we were having an effect. They weren’t expecting to have that kind of notoriety.” At a final meeting in the Humboldt Field House in August 2002, with 200 community members present, an exasperated committee told the set-aside advocates that housing wasn’t a zoning issue, but that it should be dealt with as a city ordinance.

Going With the Flow
It wasn’t a victory. But it wasn’t a defeat either. “It forced the aldermen into a corner,” says Bramble. “If they said it’s not a zoning issue, then they have to take the lead in supporting an ordinance.” And so the campaign moved seamlessly into supporting a city ordinance for a housing set-aside – something some of the groups had already been advocating separately.

That fall things moved quickly. As advocates hammered out an ideal ordinance, Mayor Daley introduced his own. The mayor’s ordinance was very weak; it only applied to city-owned or -financed projects, which are almost entirely affordable housing already. A supportive alderman, Toni Preckwinkle, offered a stronger alternative that called for 25 percent set-aside in all developments. The housing set-aside advocates all signed on to Preckwinkle’s bill and organized other aldermen to support it. At one point there were 24 aldermen at a press conference supporting it. They kept the pressure on through the elections and up to the vote on the Mayor’s bill on April 9, 2003.

You have to know Chicago to know why advocates sound so positive about that vote. In Chicago, the Mayor rules with a firm hand, and bills pass unanimously and without debate. This is the way it works, according to all who participate. But when the Mayor’s weak set-aside version came up on the table, there was an hour of impassioned debate. “It’s the first time in anyone’s memory that there was debate on the council floor,” says Jackson. Supportive aldermen declared that the bill did not do enough and offered a range of strengthening amendments that had to be defeated one by one. Though the mayor’s bill eventually passed, the debate set the stage for Preckwinkle’s bill. “We’re in this for the long haul now,” says Chrissie Richards of CRN.

Momentum
Winning a housing set-aside is not an easy fight for the Chicago housing activists, but it seems within reach, and they feel that having examples of other cities’ successes has helped them. “We still have aldermen who say ‘I question the legality of this,” says Bramble. “So it’s very helpful to be able to refer to other cities. I think it helps with our argument. It gave us more ammunition and defense. We would include it in press packets and info packets.”

But the advocates didn’t just refer to other successes. They brought it home by including in their fact sheets information such as how many units would’ve been created if Chicago had a set-aside ordinance like Maryland’s for the past 25 years. Was there backlash? “We did get a little. ‘Well, we’re not Boston,’” says Richards, but it wasn’t serious, and all in all the benefits far outweighed those moments. CRN did try to get Mayor Menino to facilitate a discussion with Mayor Daley on the subject, but the politics appeared to be too delicate, and he politely declined.

The national momentum behind inclusionary zoning did more than just give support to a set-aside campaign already underway, however. As the campaign was being crafted, it helped put a name on what it was that the advocates wanted to do – to go beyond publicly funded affordable housing and really include affordable housing in every neighborhood.

“The set-aside has galvanized housing activists like nothing else has,” says CRN’s Richards. “It’s the hot thing. It’s a good hook against gentrification.”

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