Welcome to Issue #8 of the Red Star Bulletin!
The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.
Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.
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A new ordinance temporarily halting housing demolitions in an area around the western end of the 606 Trail represents a rare success in challenging gentrification in Chicago—and an opportunity for activists and socialists to put forward longer-term solutions for protecting working-class families facing displacement from newly fashionable neighborhoods.
The measure sponsored by Alds. Roberto Maldonado, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and Daniel La Spata puts a six-month moratorium on teardowns in an area stretching from California to Kostner Avenues and from Hirsch Street to Armitage Avenue. Neighborhoods surrounding the western half of the 606, an elevated parkland trail built on an old railroad line running east to west at 1800 North, have been hit hard by the real estate developers’ advance into Logan Square, Avondale, Humboldt Park, and Hermosa.
The eastern end of the Trail had been changing into a luxury market since before the rail line fell into disuse in the 1990s, and the northwestern march of gentrification along the Kennedy Expressway corridor has been underway for years. But the design and construction of the 606 starting in the early 2010s acted as a direct artery for real estate development to flow several miles westward into neighborhoods with a relatively high density of affordable housing.
According to recent data from one of several ongoing studies, the average price for one- to four-unit buildings in neighborhoods along the western half of the Trail increased by 344% from 2012 to 2018—going from 30% below the city average for home prices to double that average in just six years.
Jennie Fronczak, director of development for LUCHA (Latin United Community Housing Association), says working-class residents were being driven out by rising rents and property tax rates as Logan Square came to lead the city in demolition permits in the years after the Trail opened in 2015. “This is tearing apart these intergenerational extended family networks that are the social supports for working families to make life work,” she says.
The new ordinance is the culmination of efforts by groups like LUCHA and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, working with Alds. Maldonado and Ramirez-Rosa, with the aim of “ensuring that every family has a right to this city,” says Fronczak.
During her campaign last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot claimed to share that goal. But as Housing Committee and City Council votes on the measure approached, Lightfoot alternated between grudging support and blasting the proposal as a “sledgehammer” approach that was “likely illegal.” Lightfoot ultimately gestured towards backing a revised measure that reduced the area of the moratorium by about a third, cut it to six months, and dropped prohibitions on zoning changes aimed at slowing deconversions of multi-unit dwellings to single-family homes.
Despite these limits, supporters are celebrating a success that they hope will provide short-term relief for working-class residents while opening up a discussion about more far-reaching measures.
Ramirez-Rosa speculates that the new ordinance might lead to proposals for a minimum density requirement in neighborhoods vulnerable to upscale development. Cities like Minneapolis have set such goals in order to increase neighborhood density. In Chicago, he says, the need in areas like those around the 606 is to preserve so-called “gentle density” against a dangerous dynamic—as the impact of rising rents and property taxes is compounded by literal housing scarcity caused by the demolition of multi-unit buildings to make way for upscale single-family homes.
The other key, says Ramirez-Rosa, will be continuing to push for affordable housing policies. For example, the Development for All ordinance, introduced last year by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez and cosponsored by 20 City Council members, would double and triple the required percentages of affordable housing in any development that gets city assistance, even a zoning change.
Fronczak says LUCHA will use the moratorium period to press for a “tangible, practical solution” in the form of community land trusts, in which land is held and controlled collectively among residents. Community land trusts first emerged in the Jim Crow South during the civil rights era to provide protection and solidarity among African-American farmers, but their use has spread to urban settings as a means of promoting affordable housing, commercial spaces, and parks and opens spaces.
The city actually runs a program called the Chicago Community Land Trust, chiefly to spur home ownership in disinvested areas. This and other city housing policies have had important benefits and could easily be expanded, Fronczak says. But LUCHA’s vision of community land trusts is rooted in democracy and local grassroots power based on the model of collective control by homeowners and renters, other community institutions, and technical experts.
The discussion around the demolitions ordinance taught some important lessons about the twisted priorities and practice of capitalism. An innovative and needed public space that reaches into previously underserved neighborhoods has also been an instrument to expand opportunities for developers to profit at the expense of the needs of the majority, and at a time when there’s a crying need for more affordable housing, Chicago now has less—a product of gentrification along the parkland trail leading to demolitions of the neighborhood’s characteristic two-, three-, and four-flats to build single-family homes most residents can’t afford.
There is a difference, though, compared to the years when Rahm Emanuel and his developer allies got away with just about anything they wanted. The six socialists at the head of a combative City Council progressive bloc are a sign of the ground shifting after decades of neoliberalism, privatization, and the naked greed of the 1%. The slogan of the Chicago teachers’ and school workers’ strike—“If we fight, we can win”—is becoming more of a reality.
Everything we do to build the prominence and politics of socialism as an alternative to capitalism—whether the struggle is about housing or anti-racism or immigrant rights or union contracts or who holds power in City Hall, Springfield, and Washington, D.C.—will help working families in every part of Chicago to demand “a right to this city.”
In 1915, Chicago’s 27th Ward elected Socialist candidate John C. Kennedy as its alderman. Kennedy, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, had been active in the Socialist Party for several years, serving as its state secretary and launching a campaign for governor. The election of Kennedy and his overwhelming reelection in 1917 were partially the result of his popular campaign for the municipal ownership of Chicago’s utilities. As alderman, Kennedy would rally against the city’s contracts with private monopolies. The Chicago News Tribune ran an article with the headline “City Utilities Under Hot Fire of Ald. Kennedy,” where it was reported that during one of his reelection rallies, “Kennedy tore into the public utility corporations” and “declared himself irrevocably opposed to the fifty-year franchise for the transaction companies and against the settlement of the gas question on the basis proposed by experts.”
Over 100 years later, not much has changed. Many of Chicago’s utilities are still privately owned, and—as in Kennedy’s time—this system of private ownership means that large corporations can take advantage of ratepayers, particularly those of low income. Nowhere is this more evident than in ComEd’s ownership of Chicago’s energy utility. It is estimated that ComEd earns approximately $200 million in profit from Chicago ratepayers annually. Meanwhile, nearly 200,000 Chicago residents are reliant on federal energy assistance programs to pay their energy bills. In Chicago, a city that can have freezing winters and dangerously humid summers, the impact of this energy insecurity can have dire—and sometimes deadly—consequences.
The organization Elevate Energy estimates that nearly 90% of low-income homeowners in Chicago report being energy insecure. Energy insecurity can cause people to sacrifice essential needs such as food and healthcare to pay energy bills or be willing to tolerate extreme temperatures. Poorly heated and cooled homes can contribute to health conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis, and rheumatism.
Burdensome energy bills can be especially difficult for low-income homeowners or renters of Chicago’s single-family bungalow homes. A large section of Chicago’s housing stock—nearly 80,000 units—is comprised of single-family bungalow homes built in the 1920s. This type of home provides housing for people at a variety of income levels but can unfortunately cause great disparities between wealthy and low-income individuals in terms of energy security. Bungalow homes tend to be energy-intensive to operate due to their size and construction materials. Wealthy Chicagoans are able to offset these inherently high-energy uses through upgrades and the likelihood that they own more modern and efficient appliances; low-income individuals, who cannot afford these types of investments, cannot. Because of this, they often are forced to use more energy while getting less out of it.
Illinois has made some progress in alleviating energy insecurity. In 2016, the state passed the Future Energy Jobs Act. The Act required utilities to double their investments in low-income energy efficiency programs. Through this legislation, ComEd was forced to invest $25 million in energy efficient aid to low-income ratepayers and another $50 million over a five-year period in various hardship programs. However, while these investments in energy efficiency are important, they are not nearly enough. In 2016, approximately 250,000 households in Illinois utilized the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), for a total of $154,557,369. In Chicago in 2018, over 181,000 people utilized some form of energy assistance, totaling $70,242,219 in direct assistance.
The only way to fundamentally address energy insecurity in Chicago is to return to the policy that was advocated for by the 27th Ward’s Socialist alderman: The city should municipalize its privately owned utilities and continue to run them on a nonprofit basis. Only then can the city of Chicago guarantee that all its residents have access to the energy they need to survive, regardless of ability to pay. After more than 100 years of fighting for it, the time is right for Chicagoans to put their public utilities under public ownership and control.
The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Rebecca Burns, Nick Hussong, Charlotte Kissinger, Alan Maass, Leonard Pierce, Marco Rosaire Rossi, and Sveta Stoytcheva. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.