The Democratic Socialist Caucus of the Chicago City Council heralded city budget wins on the environment, community development and housing at a town hall last week. Logan-area council members, and their colleagues in the caucus, also criticized property tax increases in the budget and called for improved housing assistance.
Chaired by 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) caucus also features First Ward Alderman Daniel La Spata and Avondale’s Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, of the 33rd Ward, making for a Logan-heavy presence on the five-person cacus. The members held the Thursday, Oct. 14, event because in September, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled her 2022 budget proposal, for a total of $16.7 billion. Rosa stressed that the budget dwarfs those of 16 states, including Nebraska, Hawaii and New Hampshire.
Funding Overview And Wins
Matthew Cason, Chicago DSA treasurer and a leader of the Chicago Budget Coalition, said DSA members chalked up significant wins in the new budget. In part, that’s because this was “one of the biggest budgets we’ve had ever, and this is thanks to the influx of federal funding,” Cason said. DSA and Budget Coalition groups have been “fighting … to bring us to where we are today to win a budget that builds a city that all Chicagoans deserve. We’ve won a lot,” Cason said, including funding for:
- Internet accessibility
- Community engagement for city services
- Domestic violence prevention
- Mental health assistance
- COVID-19 responses
- Violence prevention
- Permanent supportive housing
- A motel conversion fund
- Youth jobs
- Arts and culture support
- Building decarbonization
- Park improvements
- Small business assistance
“These are wins that were not going to happen” without DSA members’ advocacy, Cason said. “When this budget season started back in March, the mayor’s initial pitch for the budget was to spend half of the federal funds on debt, and there was no mentioning of community investments that we need. That’s really what spurred this coalition to action, to fight for what we need in this city.”
An overall breakdown of the budget includes:
- $166 million for community development.
- $157 million for affordable housing.
- $117 million for homelessness.
- $108 million for health and wellness.
- $101 million for climate investments.
- $85 million for violence prevention.
- $87 million for environmental justice.
- $87 million for small business support.
- $65 million for youth opportunities.
- $61 million for parks and infrastructure.
- $20 million for tourism and industry support.
- $16 million for arts and culture.
- $1.3 billion for revenue replacement from 2020 losses.
The Environment And Cumulative Impact Ordinance
La Spata and activist Olga Bautista highlighted environmental wins. The first ward alderman praised the approximate $188 million in new climate-related investments, including funding for planting trees and creating green infrastructure and energy work. Bautista praised the budget’s “cumulative impact ordinance,” which requires additional analyses on nearby communities when businesses apply for permits. This analysis goes further than is presently required in the permitting process.
“We are pulling out all the stops to make sure that it is a policy that is a participatory process that can bring relief to so many communities in the city of Chicago,” Bautista said. She warned of industries and aldermen seeking to “water down” the policy.
“This night is the culmination of a lot of work that goes back so far,” La Spata said. “We all realize how important this work is. From the water that we drink, the air in our communities, from the block we live on to the whole of our planet, we are going in absolutely the wrong direction in terms of the environmental crisis that we’re facing.” La Spata praised organizers on the call, such as Democratize ComEd and efforts to decarbonize the City of Chicago.
Property Tax Hike And Housing
DSA members also found plenty to criticize in the new budget, with La Spata voicing the caucus’s opposition to a property tax increase he said was in Lightfoot’s proposal. “If you’re a homeowner, many of the people we talk to cannot afford an increase in their property taxes. If you’re a renter, don’t be fooled in thinking that the property tax increase isn’t passed on to you, because it is,” La Spata said.
La Spata said taxes are increasing, in part, because previous legislation yoked tax rates to inflation. “The mayor has trumpeted the idea that there are no new taxes, and that is not true, in part because last year the council voted on a property tax increase based on … the Consumer Price Index, essentially tying the increase in the city’s overall tax to the rate of inflation year over year.”
La Spata said constituents are concerned about a large increase next year due to inflation, adding that similar revenue could instead be garnered by using unallocated Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program funds instead. (TIF allocates property tax money for certain districts, but Chicago can use a surplus of that money in the city budget as a whole.)
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, of the 25th ward, spoke on the housing crisis, another big advocacy point for the caucus. Sigcho-Lopez decried the “shortage of 120,000 affordable housing units” and said that unfilled police vacancies should be used to fund the creation of single-room occupancy buildings, where low-income families are housed in furnished, single-family rooms. “We fight for housing as a human right in the middle of a public health pandemic.”
Sigcho-Lopez also criticized the 20,000 evictions being filed in Cook County since the state’s eviction moratorium expired on Oct. 3.
Bradley Sanders of the Bring Chicago Home Coalition spoke to the caucus’ advocacy for homeless Chicagoans. “The mayor needs to support the Bring Chicago Home campaign to create dedicated revenue streams so that more housing can be built for people experiencing homelessness. Our proposal for raising this revenue is to change the real estate transfer tax, a one-time tax paid only when properties are sold and only on properties over $1 million. This is a long-term solution for a long-term problem.”
Bradley educated viewers on Chicago’s homeless population. “I want to clarify what we mean by ‘homeless’ because we have a very specific idea of who is homeless. The reality is that the problem is bigger than we see. People who are doubled up and tripled up make up most of the homeless population in Chicago.” Sanders is critical of the term “doubled up,” but defined it as “families and individuals staying temporarily with others … [who] are not on a lease.” Speaking from experience, Sanders said, “When I was doubled up, I had a roof over my head, but I did not have an adequate place to sleep.” Sanders explained how doubled-up families are often ineligible for housing assistance.
David Zoltan of the Chicago Housing Justice League advocated for measures such as antispeculation taxes, which include a vacancy tax, a flipping tax and an out-of-city landlord tax. Zoltan pushed for a mandate on housing-first methodology homelessness policy. “Housing-first not only ensures that we are treating folks with dignity, not putting any suppositions on how they must get housing, but simply puts people into housing. It saves the city two-thirds of the cost of leaving someone unhoused. This is just smart policy.”
Public Safety And ShotSpotter Opposition
Rodriguez-Sanchez criticized the city’s ShotSpotter contract, saying that in only 1 out of 10 instances of the gunshot-detection system’s use were police able to find any evidence of a shooting. The company has a $30 million contract with the city, the largest ShotSpotter contract in the country. Rodriguez-Sanchez highlighted the Treatment Not Trauma campaign, which seeks to create a nonpolice emergency response program for mental health crises, in addition to reopening the mental health clinics closed in 2012. “We need to set aside $75 million for the mental health crisis response pilot to scale up,” she said.
“As socialists, we know that safety for us means a lot of things. It means building the structures of care that our communities need for everybody to be safe. A lot of the things that we have talked about today already have to do with safety in our book.” Rodriguez-Sanchez said that $1.9 billion is going to the Chicago Police Department in this budget, with much of that money going to back pay and raises for police officers, along with funding to improve Chicago’s response to the consent decree requiring police reforms.
Dr. Arturo Carrillo spoke next on the caucus’ advocacy for helping those with mental illness. “What we see, of course, is that there is an overwhelming mental health crisis that we’re dealing with. We’ve done a citywide survey, in 45 of Chicago’s 50 wards, and what we found is that mental health concerns are almost universal.”
Carrillo said 94% of Chicago’s residents are dealing with mental health concerns and are actively seeking support. He added that 90% of respondents said they would attend free public mental health clinics if given the choice, and that few respondents knew that such clinics even existed, which he said was “by design.”
DSA Overview And Sign-Off
According to Rosa, “The Democratic Socialists Caucus of the Chicago City Council is a multiracial coalition of alderpeople representing portions of 21 neighborhoods on the South, North, Northwest and Lower West Sides of Chicago. We are Black, white, Latinx. We are Alderman Daniel La Spata, Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor [20th Ward], Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. We work to center working-class Chicagoans and movements for justice in our legislative work.
“The Democratic Socialists of America is the largest socialist organization in the United States. It is an entirely volunteer-run, member-driven organization. And in Chicago, the chapter organizes campaigns that empower the working class, build rank and file labor, and provide education, as well as having a commitment to centering Black and indigenous people of color communities and races.”
Participants at the town hall briefly joined breakdown rooms to discuss ideas and share thoughts on housing, the environment, public safety and the budget overall. Upon reconvening, the meeting was quickly ended without Q&A time, as the gathering had run 30 minutes past schedule.
Taylor signed off the event. “We need you all to help create change. You all helped us get into office. We cannot do this work without you all. Please remember, this change has to happen with us and not to us.”
Featured photo: Tom Vlodek