Uptown referenda aimed at changing affordable housing policies

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • October 27, 2008 @ 3:00 PM

An Uptown social justice group has two advisory referenda on next week’s ballot related to affordable housing and how tax increment financing money could be used.

But just 11 voting precincts in predominantly low-income areas of the 46th Ward in Uptown will get to vote on the non-binding referenda. Aside from canvassing within those precincts, Northside Action for Justice, the sponsors of the proposals, is keeping a low profile on the issue. And several members of a very active group of property owners in the area did not know who put the referenda on the ballot.

One referendum asks voters if companies that get public funds should be required to hire local workers first and pay them a “living wage.”

The second asks if voters would like 40 percent of the money from tax increment financing districts to be used to save and create affordable housing.

TIF districts, of which there are dozens across the city, are broadly designed to confront blight by promoting redevelopment. The districts operate by using a slice of property taxes as property values increase to pay for infrastructure improvements and other projects.

“A key part of stable housing and stable communities is also having adequate income in order to afford whatever the housing cost is,” says Francis Tobin, the chairman of the steering committee of Northside Action for Justice.

He says tackling the problem of housing that’s too expensive for some residents requires not just building more affordable housing, but also promoting better-paying jobs.

Only 11 precincts in the 46th Ward will see the referenda on the ballot. The area is roughly bounded by Lawrence Avenue to the north, Montrose Avenue to the south, Clarendon Avenue on the east and Dover Street on the west.

“The precincts that were selected for this referendum were places where we had members who could go out and help collect signatures,” Tobin says.

His group is a small grassroots organization, he says, and doesn’t have the resources to launch a referendum across a larger swath of the city. He noted that the group has previously put similar referenda on ballots in part of the 49th Ward, which includes much of Rogers Park.

“The location of the referendum has nothing to do with the location of housing,” Tobin says.

It’s a coincidence, he says, that the Wilson Yard TIF district very closely overlaps with the 11 precincts that get to vote on the referenda.

Brynn Byrne, who has been helping Northside Action for Justice by canvassing the area encouraging people to vote for the referenda, acknowledged that many people voting on the referendum are low-income residents.

“The people that we’re talking to are people that we think are going to be sympathetic toward the cause,” says Byrne.

So far, many of the people she has talked to are very supportive of what the referenda say.

“We’re trying to get the voice of the people who are part of the low-income community, that’s the voice we’re trying to get heard from on the referendum, that’s why those 11 precincts were chosen,” Byrne says.

But two longtime residents who are actively involved in the Fix Wilson Yard advocacy group said they knew nothing about the referenda. Wilson Yard is a planned mixed-use development at the corner of Montrose Avenue and Broadway. The project, which is getting some money from the Wilson Yard TIF, has attracted opposition from some residents concerned that too large of a portion of the housing would be designated for low-income residents.

“Advisory referenda are always worded where it’s kind of hard to say no to them,” says Molly Phelan, a property attorney involved in the Fix Wilson Yard campaign. “It’s like saying, ‘Do you like puppies?’ Well yes, I like puppies, but not when they’re peeing on my carpet.”

Judy Glazebrook, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, said she expected the results of the referenda to be used to drum up support for policy changes at City Hall.

“I’m sure once the final results are in, you’ll hear them quoted in various news media articles as saying that … it’s proven the community wants more affordable housing,” Glazebrook says.

Tobin says that’s essentially correct.

“It’s saying we have a housing crisis and it’s one small step in sending a message to the Mayor and the aldermen,” Tobin says.

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.