At her February ward meeting, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) praised the draft housing ordinance put forth by Mayor Lori Lightfoot earlier that day, saying it goes further than the community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance she and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) introduced last year.
Hairston said that the proposed legislation would create and maintain affordable housing for a broad range of households in Woodlawn and argued that nearby neighborhoods require different plans to preserve affordability.
She additionally said that Lightfoot’s ordinance comes as a response to a referendum explicitly calling for an anti-displacement CBA that passed in four precincts during the first round of the 2019 municipal elections. The mayor endorsed a CBA during the campaign, but her administration has made clear that the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance (WHPO) is Lightfoot’s own effort and should not be seen as a CBA.
"I knew that the original ordinance was not perfect. It had a lot of things that really do not belong in the community benefits agreement," Hairston said, referring to the initial agreement the CBA Coalition wanted the Obama Foundation to accept.
She said it included mandates to "open all the public schools that had been closed" under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and to have "free rent for everybody." (The 2018 ordinance described on the CBA Coalition’s website proposes reopening public schools closed under Emanuel through a “community engagement plan” in which residents decide how to use the buildings. It also suggests a program of incremental increases in rent for the 25 years after the CBA’s adoption.)
"Very few people actually read it," Hairston said at her ward meeting. "I got hammered very hard on it during the election, and I think that was very unfair. Because if anybody had read it, it did not make any sense."
She endorsed the CBA after the referendums passed and before her own runoff. Rather than an agreement with the Obama Foundation, the CBA became an ordinance she introduced into City Council in July 2019 with Taylor that would have applied to a two-mile radius around the Obama Presidential Center site, requiring 30% set-asides in affordable housing alongside other anti-displacement efforts.
Hairston, referencing her background as an attorney, has long voiced concerns about the legality of the CBA ordinance, drafted in conjunction with the CBA Coalition. Lightfoot did not come out in favor of it and, after months of meetings in Woodlawn with stakeholders, residents and Taylor, released the text of the WHPO on Feb. 25.
"I think that if you get what it is you're trying to do, I'm not clamoring for credit," Hairston said when asked if the WHPO represents the end of the CBA ordinance. "I think (the WHPO) is more expansive than what was contained in the CBA. It addresses all people at all levels of income. It actually puts money in the ordinance from the budget to get this work done."
Hairston said she is waiting on Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., to confirm the availability of its building for her own meeting on the WHPO on March 10.
"Let's talk about it. Let's take suggestions, because I think the thing is trying to find the balance, because we know that you have to have mixed income," Hairston said, additionally praising the WHPO's potential economic effects for "creating stable communities." "Woodlawn has great diversity,” she said, “and it is something where all voices need to be heard. It is not an easy process, but it is something that we will work through.”
Taylor has already said she does not support the WHPO, and Hairston insisted she was still “in the listening phase” when asked if she supports it. In an interview after the meeting, Hairston said she wants to hear Taylor's perspective.
"At the meetings, I've never heard her say anything. I see her staff talking," Hairston said. "We have to lead, and so I'd like to know, while we are engaging, for her to be engaged to know what her opinions are and how we work to get something's that's best, because we need to get something in place."
What the WHPO does not do is incorporate parts of South Shore and Hyde Park into its anti-displacement efforts, as the CBA ordinance would have done. Hairston stressed the different housing and economic demographics of the South Side neighborhoods.
Most of Woodlawn's vacant land is in the 20th Ward, Hairston said, while the 5th Ward's Hyde Park and South Shore sections are more dense and dominated by multi-unit buildings. The 5th Ward only contains a few precincts at the eastern and southern edges of Woodlawn, and most of them are already developed, with single-family homes, high-rises and a strip mall — but few vacant lots.
"Yes, we are concerned about (displacement), but it is a different kind of concern," Hairston said. In Hyde Park, homeowners seeking to downsize often cannot afford the neighborhood’s rents, she said. In South Shore, decades-long homeowners on fixed incomes live in condominiums and co-ops, she said, but they and their condominium associations oftentimes cannot afford home repairs, voicing support for creating stability and supportive funds for them.
"We just have to stabilize and provide resources for our people to stay here," said Hairston, observing that any anti-displacement work in South Shore would have to include the neighborhood's other aldermen, Greg Mitchell (7th) and Michelle Harris (8th).
Since the announcement that the OPC is coming to the 5th Ward in Jackson Park, Hairston has been a steadfast supporter of the project. She met with former President Barack Obama, who remains a constituent, earlier this month. She declined to discuss their conversation but relayed dismay at ongoing controversy over the project at her meeting.
"People have said to me, 'If I was Obama, I would have taken it to New York already, because people in Chicago don't seem like they want anything,’” she said. "This is not going to happen again in my lifetime. He was the first African American president. That is indisputable, and for the City of Chicago not to be the home of his presidential center has all kinds of implications."
Hairston's next ward meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 24, at Kozminski Community Academy, 963 E. 54th St., at 6 p.m.
Staff writer Christian Belanger contributed.