Chicago Faces An Affordable Housing Crisis. Has Brandon Johnson Delivered On Development Promises?

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CHICAGO — From the campaign trail to City Hall, Brandon Johnson championed Bring Chicago Home, a proposed tax hike on high-end property sales to fund homelessness initiatives, as the plan Chicago needed.

The defeat of the referendum in March’s election was a major setback for the mayor. But as Johnson marks his first year in office, he’s made strides in other housing and development efforts, and his progressive base remains committed to tackling homelessness and increasing the city’s affordable housing stock.

On the campaign trail, Johnson made a slew of promises related to affordable housing. He pledged to “stop deferring to aldermanic privilege” when creating supportive housing, to hold the Chicago Housing Authority accountable for its failures and to build more apartments in every neighborhood, according to his campaign website.

Mayor Brandon Johnson hugs an organizer as he arrives to speak while dozens rally for the Bring Chicago Home resolution outside the Thompson Center before a City Council meeting on Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

How Mayor Johnson’s First Year Lined Up With His Campaign Promises — And We’ve Got Receipts

As the anniversary of his first year in office approached, Johnson’s administration has ramped up announcements of major housing and economic development initiatives. These include a $1.25 billion plan approved last month that aims to overhaul the city’s tax-increment financing (TIF) program, cutting the red tape to streamline development citywide and pushing for a new $4.7 billion Bears stadium.

Here are three of Johnson’s major campaign promises for housing and development and the progress his administration has made.

Mayor Brandon Johnson takes questions at the Lawson House Apartments, with over 400 affordable units, which had a ribbon cutting in Gold Coast on April 1, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Hold The CHA Accountable 

A large part of Johnson’s campaign platform was dedicated to “holding the CHA accountable.”

A 2023 Block Club investigation found former Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed a backroom CHA deal with the Chicago Fire soccer team for a West Side training facility. On the campaign trail, Johnson vowed to end such sell-offs of public housing land by immediately enacting a freeze on the transfer of CHA land to non-housing uses.

Block Club’s Madison Savedra and Quinn Myers and Chalkbeat Chicago’s Becky Vevea discuss Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first year on “On the Block” 7 p.m. Thursday on The U and 10 a.m. Saturday on CW26.


“We cannot allow public land intended for housing to be auctioned off to the highest bidder or to political allies,” Johnson said while campaigning.

Since taking office, Johnson has declined to talk about the West Side land deal, and his top allies have said he may not be able to undo it, despite public pressure from activists and elected officials. And his pledge to enact a land freeze has not materialized.

In an interview with Block Club Chicago Saturday, Johnson did not commit to enacting the freeze, saying instead he is “bringing everyone to the table” on the issue.

“My plan has been to bring stakeholders together,” he said. “I’ve said from the very beginning, I still stand by my position to build more affordable housing and more public housing to support our public infrastructure. But I’m also very much committed to listening to everyone.”

The CHA has gotten into hot water over other issues during Johnson’s term, as well.

Work is underway on the land that the Chicago Housing Authority leased to the Chicago Fire soccer team to build a new practice facility. Credit: Curtis Lawrence/Block Club Chicago

A Block Club investigation late last year showed the CHA was sitting on nearly 500 empty, decaying homes that are part of its scattered-site program as Chicago struggles to address housing crises on multiple fronts. Some of the homes sat vacant for decades despite the 120,000 people on the CHA’s waitlists, agency officials said.

Some of the vacant CHA properties have become magnets for crime, including one in West Humboldt Park being used as a drug stash house. Others — like a historic Pullman home — have deteriorated.

CHA CEO Tracey Scott and other CHA officials appeared before the council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate this month, where neighbors ripped her leadership and resident leaders and a member of the Chicago Housing Authority board called for her to resign.

In an interview Saturday, Johnson refused to discuss Scott’s performance and whether she should be replaced.

“I don’t discuss personnel issues publicly. I find that to be inhumane and disrespectful,” Johnson said.

RElated

On the campaign trail, Johnson promised to tackle Chicago’s crime and overhaul its transportation, education and housing systems. Here’s where he stands today.


Tracey Scott, CEO of Chicago Housing Authority, at the groundbreaking ceremony for Grace Manor Apartments, a 65-unit affordable housing development at 3400 W. Ogden Ave., in North Lawndale on Dec. 11, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The CHA has also faced backlash over how many of its vouchers the agency has used to house people experiencing homelessness. A civic group claims that number is 85 percent, while the CHA says it’s 91 percent, according to the Sun-Times.

While campaigning, the mayor’s agenda had included creating an expedited approach for people experiencing homelessness to access those vouchers. That hasn’t happened.

At a May 6 news conference, Johnson did not give a direct answer when asked if the CHA should focus more on directly housing people instead of using vouchers.

“There’s not one particular model that works best. What we do have is a real housing crisis in the city of Chicago. … We’ve already built 100 new affordable housing units since I’ve been in office,” Johnson said. “There are another 700 that are in the process of being built now.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson announced 100 recommendations to make housing and commercial development more efficient, called “Cut the Tape,” at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 5, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Make Affordable Housing Cheaper And Easier To Build

Johnson made expanding affordable housing a core value of his platform.

He pledged to “reduce the cost to develop affordable housing by waiving fees for new affordable housing buildings, and fast-track zoning and building approvals so that affordable housing projects jump to the front of the queue,” according to his campaign website.

The Cut the Tape initiative, announced in April, makes 107 recommendations for improving the efficiency of the affordable housing and commercial development process.

The initiative specifically calls for creating a policy to expedite reviews of affordable housing projects. That will take six months to complete, according to the report. 

The plan also calls for the city to streamline design and construction requirements by reducing the number of design review meetings and updating zoning laws. Special zoning districts like this already exist in certain neighborhoods, and efforts are underway to create a plan for developments along Milwaukee Avenue on the Northwest Side.

A booklet details the 100 recommendations to make housing and commercial development more efficient that Mayor Brandon Johnson announced, called “Cut the Tape,” at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 5, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Eliminating the city’s minimum parking requirement, a zoning change highlighted in Cut the Tape, could also support creating more middle-income market-rate housing — another promise in Johnson’s affordable housing platform. Parking requirements have been known to slow development timelines and are increasingly expensive.

Although largely aligned with Johnson’s campaign promises, Cut the Tape has yet to be implemented. The implementation timelines for the various recommendations range from three months to over a year.

Bring Chicago Home And Combating Homelessness 

The defeat of Bring Chicago Home, which received widespread praise and criticism over the past year, was a major blow to Johnson’s administration and his campaign goal to create a solution to homelessness.

The defeat showed weaknesses in support for the mayor. An alternative to the referendum has yet to be announced.

Despite that, Johnson has pushed ahead on supporting other campaign promises to address homelessness. One of those was committing to decreasing aldermanic privilege, specifically as it relates to the creation of supportive housing.

“Alderpeople should be involved in development and zoning decisions in their wards, but they should not have sole veto power over affordable housing developments that serve our lowest income residents. We need more housing at every income level across the city,” Johnson said on his campaign website.

Vincent, who was experiencing homelessness, was surveyed as the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count was conducted to assess the city’s homeless population in the Loop on Jan. 25, 2024 Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Two zoning initiatives in Cut the Tape could limit aldermanic prerogative. The first allow ground-floor residential uses on commercial corridors with excessive vacancy without aldermanic approval. This initiative has not yet been introduced to City Council, which must vote to approve the change.

The other initiative would expand the city’s Additional Dwelling Unit (ADU) pilot program, which allows for the construction of backyard coach houses, basement units and attic units on a limited scale. The program allows the new units to be brought online without a zoning change, which are typically approved by the local alderman, and is designed to increase affordable housing options.

Under the pilot program, 247 new dwelling units have been created so far, according to the housing department.

The expansion of the pilot has been delayed in City Council since last year, but Ald. Bennett Lawson (44th), who sponsored the measure, recently introduced a substitute version and said he expects it to move forward this summer. If it passes, Johnson will fulfill his promise.

Sendy Soto, Chicago’s first Chief Homelessness Officer, with Mayor Brandon Johnson at the ribbon cutting for the Lawson House Apartments, with over 400 affordable units, in Gold Coast on April 1, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In April, Johnson attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of the Lawson House, a 400-unit micro-apartment complex in the Gold Coast started during former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s tenure. 

The completion of the Lawson House aligns with Johnson’s campaign promise to preserve single-room occupancy units. The city’s recently approved $1.25 billion bond plan also sets aside $20-$30 million for single-room occupancy preservation. 

Johnson’s administration has also seen the groundbreaking of Grace Manor, a $40 million affordable housing project that will bring 65 apartments to North Lawndale.

At the same event, Johnson introduced the city’s first chief homelessness officer, Sendy Soto, who was hired last month to expand housing options for people who experience homelessness and housing insecurity.

Although not exclusively a promise mentioned on the campaign trail, the addition of Soto to Johnson’s administration aligns with his platform to fight homelessness.

The Chicago Board of Trade Building looms over LaSalle Street in the Loop on March 7, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

What’s Next

Johnson is ramping up initiatives that will pave the way for his next three years in office.

That includes following through on projects from Lightfoot’s administration, such as committing TIF dollars for office-to-residential conversions in the LaSalle Street financial district. Johnson announced four project finalists for LaSalle Street Reimagined in April. The proejcts would collectively use $151.2 million in TIF funds to repurpose underused office buildings, adding more than 1,000 new apartments, about a third of them affordable.

An anti-deconversion ordinance aimed at curbing rapid redevelopment near The 606 and in Pilsen was extended earlier this year after a pilot project implemented in 2015 has helped stop demolitions in gentrifying areas.

A permanent deconversion ordinance is in the works, paving the way for a citywide law that would protect multi-unit residential buildings from being torn down and replaced by luxury single-family homes — a goal for the mayor.

The city has seen 571 affordable units completed since Johnson took office, with 488 under construction, 271 under rehab and five ribbon cuttings, according to a May 6 press release from his administration.

A rendering of the Bears $3.2 billion domed stadium proposed for the city’s lakefront. Mayor Brandon Johnson is supportive of the plan — including taxpayer funding for it. Credit: Courtesy Chicago Bears, Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

One development plan that has caused a stir among Chicagoans is the new Bears stadium.

Johnson has said he’s all-in for the multibillion-dollar stadium, defending the massive project as a boon for local jobs, public recreational space and tourism — as well as the hometown team, which has threatened to move to the suburbs.

The catch: Taxpayers would have to cough up as much as $1.5 billion of the projected $4.7 billion tab.

While campaigning for mayor, Johnson said he wanted the Bears to stay in Chicago — but he told WBEZ it shouldn’t come at a cost to taxpayers. He suggested other uses for the money, including removing lead piping, supporting the unhoused and fully funding schools.

Johnson’s more recent statements in support of the stadium plans have led to sharp criticism from some of his backers.

“I don’t know how you sell a subsidy for billionaires as being progressive. Because when the mayor is talking about investing in people, the question is, which people are you investing in?” Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) told WBEZ last month. 

It’s unknown if Johnson will be able to get support for stadium subsidies as other progressive alderpeople and allies are against the plan.


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