Carlos Ramirez-Rosa: False Prophet of Chicago’s 35th Ward
Alderman is depriving the 35th Ward of its vitality
Take a glance at Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s reelection website and you would think the 35th Ward has undergone a miraculous transformation since the now 33 year-old became alderman in 2015. A homepage which reads like a parody of vague empowerment clichés: “We’re building coalitions, bringing people together, and providing resources to families in need,” Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign aims to gull voters into believing residents in the 35th Ward suffered under great oppression and led miserable, cheerless lives under predecessor Rey Colon.
Portraying himself as rescuing the ward in its darkest hour, Ramirez-Rosa has painted the jurisdiction under his leadership as achieving an unmatched level of polish, with verdant parks, slum sections giving way to sleek new buildings, cleaner streets, more reliable public transit, and poverty, homelessness, and crime all receding. Most importantly, Ramirez-Rosa would also like us convinced his two terms as alderman have left the 35th Ward a democratic and moral example for the new age.
Since his election to office in 2015, Ramirez-Rosa has distinguished himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden and has vowed to redress social inequities, particularly housing. The godfather of democratic socialists in the City Council, Ramirez-Rosa is known for his acerbic ramblings in public and for speeches conveying a hyper-moralized tone on the City Council floor. Ramirez-Rosa often cleverly pretends to share the concerns of his constituents and as alderman has consistently struck a pose he alone ushered in a model of governance in which citizens are convinced they enjoy full participation in democracy.
Yet an assessment of the conditions in the 35th Ward since Ramirez-Rosa seized power in 2015 reveal he has precious few successes to show for his work. According to some of his constituents, it is a time of uneasiness, with a growing number of homeowners frustrated and anxious with changes in the ward.
Despite all his bluster, Ramirez-Rosa's two terms in the City Council have failed to convert the 35th Ward from a doomed neighborhood into an idyllic utopia. Conversely, perhaps the Democratic Socialists of America member's most remarkable achievement has been silencing observers who offer a sober appraisal of his policy priorities or management of the ward. An astonishing triumph, the muzzling of rational and unbiased perspectives of his political tenure have empowered the alderman’s manipulations of the truth to flourish over reason. In a climate in which open-minded viewpoints have been suffocated, it is fair to dispassionately assess how commercial projects and public services have fared under Ramirez-Rosa.
To illustrate how Ramirez-Rosa impedes economic development in his ward, it is helpful to first understand how the alderman orchestrates a trifecta of dilatory tactics, hostility with market-driven housing, and the exclusion of small businesses from publicly articulating alternatives to the alderman’s ideological compass.
Although the need for affordable housing in the 35th Ward remains strong, delays in the approval of zoning permits have caused the construction of housing to lag far behind the remainder of the city. According to Cityscape, in the past five years alone, of the 2,089 zoning change applications submitted in Chicago, 1,736 passed, 56 were deferred, and another 297 were awaiting review. Yet over the same five-year period, a mere 42 permit applications were presented and only 34 were approved in the 35th Ward.
To further demonstrate how Ramirez-Rosa has deliberately slowed zoning matters, in comparison to Chicago’s other 49 wards, the average length of time required to push over 2,047 zoning change applications required 77 days. In the 35th Ward under Ramirez-Rosa, the average length of time required for approval is 165 days, or more than double the citywide average.
An application for a zoning permit is an emblem of investors or businesses attempting to effectuate new housing and redevelopment projects. Put differently, it is a gesture performed by stakeholders to advance or improve the livability and economic livelihood of a neighborhood. While bureaucratic inefficiency can be blamed for the excessive waiting period, Ramirez-Rosa’s critics charge the alderman's “participatory community driven process” is the main culprit for the sluggish pace for approval of permits. Worse, Ramirez-Rosa’s critics assert the alderman’s overly laborious “participatory” format is a sham and affords the public virtually no genuine influence in governing the ward.
Under Ramirez-Rosa’s illusion of participatory democracy, once a zoning change request is submitted, developers and property owners must then seek the approval of civic groups in the 35th Ward. These groups can include, for example, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Logan Square Preservation or the Avondale Neighborhood Association. Community organizations which have shared and varying goals, these public associations then hold individual meetings to deliberate any proposed redevelopment. Public meetings overseen by the alderman to consider proposals follow. This exercise of Ramirez-Rosa’s “participatory democracy” is agonizingly slow and can take months and at great cost to stakeholders whose aim is easing the housing shortage in the 35th Ward.
However, if you were to ask Mr. Ramirez-Rosa about the honesty and transparency of the public debate in his “participatory democracy” framework, he would likely declare his model of democracy is precisely what his constituents demand. This is another Ramirez-Rosa dodge. A man divorced from reality, Ramirez-Rosa’s “participatory democracy” is carefully rigged by the alderman to exclude vital civic groups — namely the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce — from serious and consequential decisions for the future of the neighborhood. In addition to shutting out the local chamber, Ramirez-Rosa’s machinations also embrace barring open hearings hosted by advocacy groups with multi-million-dollar payrolls on his zoning committees.
Ramirez-Rosa, of course, will piously aver his form of “participatory democracy” was constructed to save the 35th Ward from the displacement of long-time residents. Another sly Ramirez-Rosa trick, this manufactured narrative defies a wealth of research which refutes new construction inevitably forces a mass exodus of residents from a gentrifying neighborhood. Researchers at the Upjohn Institute have concluded new development projects not only slow rental increases, but rental rates do not rise as a result of the growth of new businesses, known as the amenity effect. Upjohn’s working paper is one of many studies deducing new construction yields positive economic results.
One such uplifting outcome of new construction is a neighborhood’s commercial corridor experiencing a higher level of consumer traffic. Though individuals and business owners generally recoil with horror at the mention of “tax,” certain forms of taxation can encourage growth, lend a hand to existing businesses, and be welcome by developers. A Special Service Area (SSA) levy imposed on property owners within a set boundary is one such tax. Under an SSA, revenue collected covers the cost for supplemental services, namely street lights, neighborhood beautification projects, trash and graffiti removal, and security cameras.
A tax which is almost universally embraced by stakeholders with a vested interest in economic advancement in the ward, though Ramirez-Rosa has publicly expressed support for the proposed SSA, the duplicitous alderman has done nothing at all to advance the modest levy in the City Council. According to stakeholders with interests in the 35th Ward, though developers and property managers that would normally support the SSA, few have espoused it, owing to a consequence of Ramirez-Rosa supporting ordinances in the City Council which place restraints on development in the ward or routinely maligning developers and property managers in the most outrageous manner.
Although a relationship between an alderman and property developers would seem to be a natural and easy alliance, Alderman Ramirez-Rosa has spent the entirety of his two terms in office agitating his supporters against business owners, real estate developers, and property managers. A man of a very narrow range of vision and little economic fluency, Ramirez-Rosa has invested a considerable amount of time and energy in office depicting business owners, developers, and property managers as ruthless, conscienceless profiteers or modern-day Robber Barons who are driven by greed and soulless materialism and seek to humiliate and exploit for profit and personal gratification. A far-left, partisan theologian, to Ramirez-Rosa, property owners and developers are urban exploiters who enrich themselves off the labor of workers.
Though Ramirez-Rosa habitually inveighs against developers and property owners, it has not prevented him from accepting campaign contributions from well-heeled donors in the real estate industry. In an act of monumental hypocrisy, Ramirez-Rosa has delighted in gifts of cash for his reelection bid from GW Properties. Evidently, the glib Ramirez-Rosa is every bit immersed in Chicago’s notorious, pay-to-play political culture he relentlessly condemns.
The shredding of neighborhood fabric and traditional alliances in pursuit of misguided goals, Ramirez-Rosa’s unsparing public criticism of business owners, investors, and landlords in the ward has won few friends among stakeholders willing to take risks and develop property — including developers committed to constructing affordable housing. This loathing of business interests has led to the delay of large redevelopment projects in the 35th Ward.
A long-awaited plan to overhaul the Logan Square traffic circle at Milwaukee and Kedzie Avenues has been delayed, and serves as another example of Ramirez-Rosa’s temporizing. A project which would redirect the traffic pattern surrounding the Illinois Centennial Monument, the proposal — which has been discussed for decades and is funded — has been thoroughly mismanaged by Ramirez-Rosa. Though Ramirez-Rosa and his allies, specifically The Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, claim they support the reconfiguration of the traffic pattern and the beautification which would accompany the project’s completion, comparable to the stalled SSA, the redirect at Kedzie and Milwaukee has lingered. The most recent setback to the Logan Square redirect advancing — a controversy over bike lanes being carved into any final plan — is creating a delay which is causing harm to businesses, specifically the Logan Square Farmers Market.
To fully grasp how Alderman Ramirez-Rosa’s “participatory democracy” framework operates, one must penetrate the byzantine complexities of zoning permit approval under the alderman. Though mentioned earlier, it bears repeating in Ramirez-Rosa’s deception of participatory democracy stakeholders seeking to provide affordable housing submit a request for a zoning change and then solicit support from 35th Ward civic groups. Curiously, these same public groups which host community meetings to contemplate development proposals often exclude residents and developers or property owners whose input would be essential in critical decisions for the future of the neighborhood. It should come as no surprise many of these civic groups to which developers and property owners are directed by the alderman for approval are in complete alignment with or beholden to Ramirez-Rosa politically.
Once these civic groups tender their judgment on a proposed development, additional public meetings overseen by Ramirez-Rosa are held to weigh the proposal and for residents and neighborhood groups to express their views on development of the ward. Oddly, these meetings are open to all residents and groups, even though a proposed redevelopment is located in a different neighborhood in the 35th Ward. In essence, Ramirez-Rosa’s “participatory democracy” is a scheme by which a broad coalition of residents are offered a public platform to articulate opposition to a development, even though a vast set of residents are completely unaffected by any proposed change to neighborhood landscape.
One notable example of Ramirez-Rosa’s inflexibility regarding zoning is found in a development in Avondale. For years the fate of a blighted property at 2901 North Milwaukee remained uncertain. The site of a proposed redevelopment into 19 units — four of which were originally set aside as affordable — Ramirez-Rosa’s “participatory democracy” model brought redevelopment of the property to a near standstill. Following Ramirez-Rosa’s exercise, the illusion of citizens enjoying the power to decide on policy proposals resulted in a sum total of 10 units, only one of which was affordable. A curious contradiction of the alderman’s progressive principles, though the logical way to mitigate affordable housing is to increase the supply, Ramirez-Rosa’s antagonistic approach to new housing construction resulted in fewer affordable housing units being constructed.
Throw in the profusion of exclusionary zoning ordinances, other bureaucratic delays, or debate in the Chicago City Council with Ramirez-Rosa’s deliberately protracted “participatory democracy” playbook, and stakeholders who intend on bringing relief to the housing shortage are often left frustrated and those in need of affordable housing are shut out of a home. All of this occurs despite a mass of research revealing the increase to the housing supply actually reduces the market rate of housing broadly and larger development proposals include affordable units for low-income earners compared to a neighborhood’s median income.
Ramirez-Rosa’s participatory democracy is a user manual for keeping people in poverty
Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is not simply slowing the his ward's progress, but is inflicting long-term damage to his district and its residents.
A man who portrays himself as a heroic character who returned democracy to the 35th Ward, Alderman Ramirez-Rosa’s participatory democracy framework has one overriding goal: To create the pretense for residents they are playing a role in determining the path forward. Though Ramirez-Rosa has constructed his collective decision-making activity with a patina of democracy, his participatory democracy template is just perfunctory, and it is the alderman, along with strong influence from elite left-wing advocacy groups which functionally control development in the 35th Ward. To Ramirez-Rosa, public debate and democracy are boring, but rituals which must be endured to maintain the deception of democracy in his ward. Mr. Ramirez-Rosa detests powerful interest groups, unless they are his kind of special-interest groups.
To Ramirez-Rosa, the terms “developer” or “land owner” are synonymous with "gentrification," the latter a curse word analogous with greed, opportunism, subjugation, and lust for power. While gentrification has traditionally been understood as poor residents being chased out of residences, available research has demonstrated the actual outflow of residents does not dramatically increase with gentrification and children are shown to achieve better outcomes when neighborhoods experience improvements.
Unfortunately, Alderman Ramirez-Rosa’s worldview is Marxist in orientation, which rejects creating abundance in favor of condemning residents to squalor. If Ramirez-Rosa was committed to upholding his progressive values and protecting poorer residents in need of affordable housing, he could use his elected position to introduce legislation to cap property taxes for long-time residents and develop a more efficient method to approve development projects in the 35th Ward.
This could be achieved by establishing a new foundation for community approval of zoning changes. While meetings could still include a wide range of residents, participants who vote in zoning approval should have strict limits imposed — three to four square blocks of the proposed zoning change — and should involve developers, property managers, and local business owners. In the interest of fairness, only verified residents within the geographic boundary or a designated representative of a recognized civic group should be allowed to speak. Moreover, a timeframe for a vote should be set and observed at meetings. Last, if necessary, an impartial facilitator should preside over any community meetings.
There is little reason to believe Ramirez-Rosa will abandon his Marxian convictions anytime soon. A man who maintains his prime concern is the downtrodden, Ramirez-Rosa’s refusal to create a consensus with stakeholders in the ward, simplify zoning matters, and foster economic and residential development is the primary reason archipelagos of vagrant tent cities have mushroomed all over and now dominate public space in the 35th Ward.
Alderman Ramirez-Rosa is not a friend to the poor, but a friend to poverty. Unless defeated at the ballot box, residents of the 35th Ward can expect neighborhood safety and economic potential to fade. Despite a bleak outlook, it is assured Ramirez-Rosa will take credit for any achievement in the neighborhood, despite his obstructionism. And that is Ramirez-Rosa's greatest deception.