Chicago Pumps the Brakes on Housing

August 17, 2023

Housing development in Chicago will suffer under Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

The election of Brandon Johnson as mayor of Chicago was assumed to usher in a new day in the Windy City. An organizer and paid lobbyist for the notoriously rowdy Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Johnson often spoke of being a direct representative of the common man while campaigning for office. Revealing his priorities on the campaign trail, Johnson pledged to solve Chicago’s homelessness problem and declared permanent housing, subsidized by the government, is the only legitimate solution to the homelessness conundrum.

With Johnson’s ascent to the mayor’s office occurring with an increase in the number of seats held by Democratic Socialists (DSAs) and progressives on the City Council, dramatic changes over how to provide housing in Chicago are certain so now is the right time to take critical stock over how Mayor Johnson will achieve his stated goal of housing the unhoused into safe, stable homes. To assess how the mayor intends to reach the objective of housing the estimated 65,000 homeless, it is helpful to become familiar with whom the mayor has charged with combatting this societal ill.

Upon his election, Brandon Johnson appointed all five DSA alderman to City Council committee chairmanships. A disquieting signal over the direction Johnson intends to take Chicago, of the five DSA chairmen, one will hold the dual role of Floor Leader and chair of the Zoning Committee, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. A bewildering appointment from a mayor who has pledged to house the homeless, Ramirez-Rosa’s behavior and record on housing as alderman in the 35th Ward deserves some careful examination.

A career community organizer and former aide in the office of retired U.S. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Ramirez-Rosa was elected to the City Council in 2015 after unseating three-term incumbent Rey Colon. At the time of his first campaign, Ramirez-Rosa, an avowed Socialist who has expressed admiration for Castro’s Cuba, bludgeoned Colon for his close relationship with developers in the 35th Ward. Lavishly funded by the CTU, and the Service Employees International Union, Ramirez-Rosa immediately set about transforming the Logan Square neighborhood he represents from a lively quarter of Chicago experiencing impressive growth in demand for good quality housing, walkability, and proximity to transit, into a stronghold of far-left-wing politics serving the narrow interests of fringe NIMBYs and Socialists, all of whom are obstinately opposed to new housing.    

A man of burning ambition who is always reaching for the next rung on the political ladder, Ramirez-Rosa required less than three years in the city’s legislative chamber before he leaped at the opportunity for higher office. In a humiliating debacle, however, Ramirez-Rosa survived only six days as Dan Biss’ running mate in the 2018 Illinois gubernatorial election before being unceremoniously booted from the ticket for his passionate support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

While serving as alderman, Ramirez-Rosa has often acted as an orator who touches the heights with his passionate speeches on the plight of the poor, immigrants, workers, the LGBTQ community or the need for affordable housing. Returned to office in 2019 and 2023, it required the election of Brandon Johnson for Ramirez-Rosa to finally be vested with the sort of awesome power for which he has so long sought. With a mayor hand-picked by the CTU now in office and the CTU-backed progressive aldermen now firmly entrenched in the City Council, Rosa’s appointment as Mayor Johnson’s Floor Leader, and chair of the powerful Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, affords the 35th Ward alderman room to maneuver and prevail on his mission issue: The de-commodification of housing. Ramirez-Rosa’s past, if reviewed with care, should provide some insight into how Ramirez-Rose will shape housing policy in Chicago over the next four years.

During the course of his two terms representing the 35th Ward, Ramirez-Rosa has consistently staked out radical positions on housing. A man whose actions are often at odds with his public statements, Ramirez-Rosa has often taken steps to put into place obstacles which inhibit the development of housing. For example: A primary tactic for Ramirez-Rosa was to downzone in areas designated as Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD). Among the benefits of eTOD is affordable housing in the vicinity of public transit. The reasoning behind eTOD is, in part, to boost CTA ridership, create a steady flow of consumer traffic for local businesses, and assuage the burden of rent by increasing the supply of housing. Though downsizing an eTOD region conflicts with the stated goals of an eTOD region — specifically the building of more housing — Ramirez-Rosa continued leveraging city code to downzone and place further limits on property use.

A peculiar gambit for a city he claims is in the midst of a housing crisis, it demands Mr. Ramirez-Rosa answer one question: If there is a shortage of housing, shouldn’t Chicago act to build more of it?

Though the designated eTOD area near Milwaukee Avenue is promising and bears scrutiny for its appropriateness for housing, Ramirez-Rosa wielding zoning as a truncheon and unnecessarily downzoning has impeded the pace essential to accommodate the unhoused. Explaining downzoning, the alderman simply provides the excuse decision making in the 35th Ward is in the hands of the people participating in a “community driven zoning process.” A falsehood, Ramirez-Rosa’s “community driven zoning process” is far from a democratic activity, is permeable, and with no potential for an outcome not predetermined by his office. This is not democratic. Moreover, Mr. Ramirez-Rosa’s conduct is not the admirable act of a deft leader, but rather dishonest behavior and a disservice to democracy.

An avid supporter of eliminating legal barriers which prohibit the enforcement of rent control, Ramirez-Rosa similarly opposes laws which permit landlords the right to terminate the landlord-tenant relationship, or Just Cause Eviction. Though both laws erode the rights of housing providers and are sharply opposed by local builders and housing organizations such as the Neighborhood Builders Owners Alliance, economists, too, contend rent control prohibits the growth of housing, which worsens the supply crunch.

With estimates — as told by WBEZ — placing the U.S. short of meeting the demand for housing by nearly 3 million units, why, with an approximate 65,000 homeless population in Chicago, would Alderman Ramirez-Rosa unapologetically adopt a stance which cripples the expansion of housing?

Mr. Rosa has routinely touted his leadership facilitated the construction of a 100-unit affordable housing project — the Emmett Street apartments — near the Logan Square Blue Line Station as an accomplishment and his fulfillment of a vow to bring affordable housing to Chicago neighborhoods in need. Bearing in mind the elevated costs involved with such projects and the enormous obstacles to overcome and complete such a venture, is to Ramirez-Rosa’s credit.

Nonetheless, as private housing is understood to be more cost effective per square foot and is known to yield more revenue for the city, the efficacy of public investments in housing in comparison is highly debatable. Furthermore, affordable housing projects have been completed prior to the construction of Emmett Street apartments — namely the Pennycuff in Logan Square or an approved affordable housing initiative slated for neighboring Lincoln Square — yet neither building project invited legal action. In the matter of the Emmett Street apartments, Ramirez-Rosa’s actions drew the ire of residents and the development was met with litigation. Though a lawsuit, Ramirez-Rosa’s positions, and his natural irascible disposition on matters of great importance should have served as a forewarning to the incoming Johnson administration, as mayor-elect, Johnson nevertheless appointed Ramirez-Rosa as both Floor Leader in the City Council and chair of the Zoning Committee. Mayor Johnson’s decision to appoint Ramirez-Rosa to two crucial positions despite the alderman’s history of clashing with home builders and his truculent personality reveal the mayor is blissfully indifferent to his past behavior or simply dismissing criticism of a key ally as partisan blather.

Finally, Ramirez-Rosa’s entire political career has revolved around disparaging and antagonizing housing providers in the 35th Ward and across the city. In one notable instance in 2019, Rosa scrapped with a prolific developer, Mark Fishman, who sued Ramirez-Rosa over the alderman failing to meet the obligations of his lease. A failure to pay rent on his ward office, Fishman was also accused by Ramirez-Rosa of being immersed in Chicago’s notorious pay-to-play political culture. Though the two men engaged in a nasty public feud and hurled brickbats, Fishman ultimately prevailed in court. Ramirez-Rosa has since declined to mention Mr. Fishman in public.

Since he announced his intention to seek the mayor’s office in October 2022, Brandon Johnson has consistently demonstrated his priorities for the development of housing, specifically affordable housing aimed at benefitting low-income residents and the homeless. While uplifting the itinerant is a noble impulse, if Johnson’s goal is to create both market and affordable housing, logic dictates steps should be taken to eliminate obstacles which prevent the construction of housing units.

Though the highest form of efficiency for the building of affordable housing requires cooperation between private enterprise and the City of Chicago, the naming of Alderman Ramirez-Rosa as Floor Leader and chair of the Zoning Committee will likely preclude any fruitful, effective collaboration with housing providers. A man who is committed to taking up cudgels against housing providers and who is devoid of original ideas and solutions, Ramirez-Rosa overseeing zoning matters makes us wager a good deal of money housing will be built at a glacially slow pace over the next four years.

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