Mission in Motion

By Richard Townsell

The election of a Black woman as the next Mayor of Chicago was a historic moment.  That very same month was the 51st anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Considering these two facts, I am writing about some policy frustrations that impact our work in North Lawndale and I am presenting a proposal for how the new mayor can aid us in rebuilding communities like ours throughout the city.

First and foremost, equity became a major theme in the campaign. The emphasis on justice and fair-play signifies that the incoming mayor will have to do more than pay lip service to the growing inequity in our city between the Loop and neighborhoods.  It is almost like the movie “The Hunger Games”  For those who don’t know the plot, it is set in a near future where countries’ have been destroyed’ and replaced by 12 Districts under the control of the Capitol. To strengthen its tight control over the districts, the Capitol organizes games each year where 24 helpless children, 2 from each district, fight to the death in an arena filled with dangerous animals and cruel tactics to destroy the teenagers, both physically and psychologically. The winner, after killing all the others to survive, must deal with the pain, the nightmares and the Capitol’s control.

The Hunger Games is an appropriate metaphor politically, economically and socially. The people in the Districts are hungry for real food.  By contrast, The Capitol City is thriving. Everyone is well fed, beautiful and look forward to the “entertainment” that happens during the annual Games.

For Chicago, this plot is not a dystopian future but an ever-present reality. There have been few opportunities for work, affordable housing, or upward mobility and as a result, Black folks have voted with their feet and left.  They are sick of the corruption, the schemes, the lack of political and economic accountability to an elite power structure bent on maintaining its grip on power and wealth.  What are some of the cunning ways in which this has occurred?

Taxing people to death:  I read in Crain’s Chicago business and the website WalletHub (Feb 2019) that Illinois has the 2nd highest property tax rate in the nation.  In Cook County, the last Assessor Joe Berrios, had a reverse Robin Hood thing going on.  Suburban Cook County had homes that were underassessed for their taxes and poor communities on the South and West sides of Chicago were over-assessed.  This scheme was documented and uncovered by the Tribune and Sun Times and so I won’t belabor the point.

Utility companies have been taking folks to the cleaners: enabled by Utilities companies’ cozy relationships with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate.  The Citizen’s Utility Board reported that in the November 2018 election cycle, the Chicago natural gas utility boosted campaign contributions by roughly five times their normal level, spreading more than $560,000 across numerous candidates for alderman, the state legislature and Illinois attorney general, according to filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections.  The unusually generous giving comes as Peoples’ Milwaukee-based parent, WEC Energy Group, girds for attempts in the Chicago City Council and potentially the state Legislature to force the utility to reduce its $300 million-a-year spending on replacing aging natural gas mains below the city’s streets. Annual utility rate increases are almost a lock.  Suburban customers pay less than Chicago customers for natural gas.

Commonwealth Edison imposes a delivery charge for electricity whether you use electricity or not.  We have several vacant buildings in our portfolio that get electric bills even though there are no lights or any other electrical items on in the buildings.  How do you charge someone for delivery if no electricity is delivered.  When I called Com ED to ask, there was no meaningful explanation.

Water Bills have increased dramatically in the City. One of our buildings was acquired from the Cook County Land Bank last February.  In May, we received a $4000 water bill for water usage that was allegedly one month in February.  The basement was bone dry during that period so we are still trying to figure out how 408,300 gallons of water went into a building with no toilets, sinks or tubs.  After fighting the bill, appealing it, checking the meter, we lost our battle.  The Water Dept. said it was justified and we had to pay.  Mind you, 403,000 gallons of water in one month is enough to house two Beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium. Also, water bills for our apartments have gone up about 80%.

Fines have increased in the City.  We are presently working with seniors who have been threatened and harassed by Building Inspectors who are dragging them into court and giving them unrealistic timelines to make repairs (or sell the property).  This is what transpired in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Logan Square when the development vultures wanted to move in and push poor folks out and were aided and abetted by our fine City.  Fortunately, Whittney Smith, our Development Director and counsel has been representing them in court.  It is a full court press and it is discouraging to our seniors who have lived most of their lives in their homes.

Administrative Hearings are a joke. When you go to contest fines for someone fly dumping on your property, traffic tickets or some other offense, you must have an attorney ($) to contest the fine.  Your attorney ($) goes before a judge, but before your case is called, the City Hearing Officers will pull you into a back room and try to strike a deal with you.  You can pay $250 right now or take your chance with the Judge and pay $500, if you lose.  If you don’t have the money, don’t worry.  Go outside the Court Room and there is an ATM machine (so convenient) so you can pay.  There is a fee to use the ATM ($) because it is not connected to a major bank. Hundreds of people a day experience this transactional relationship with our City and it fills major holes in the City budget.

Low appraisals are a huge issue in our neighborhoods.  Low appraisals make it nearly impossible to borrow money to fix up your home or take out an equity loan to start a business. It seems like we are going backwards in communities of color to the era before the Community Reinvestment Act.  The same property in Oak Park (literally 15 minutes away) sells for 2-3 times what North Lawndale properties go for.  It is sophisticated redlining.  Our insurance costs are higher.  Our property taxes are higher as a percentage of the value.  Our home values are lower.  Very few banks are lending to our residents or the underwriting criteria is so taxing that it is difficult to get a loan.  Meanwhile, hedge funds are buying up blocks in our communities and the vast majority of these properties never get listed.

The new Mayor will require your voices, your vigilance, your willingness to fight and disrupt business as usual in Chicago in order to stop the Hunger Games Chicago-style in its tracks. How do you plan to lend your hand to the plow? Let’s hear from you!