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Candidates Quizzed on Neighborhood Issues

Mayoral contenders (from left) Rahm Emanuel, Miguel Del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and Gery Chico addressed community developers for 20 minutes apiece.

All photos by Juan Francisco Hernandez

There were no accusations traded, no canned talking points delivered and definitely no boos or catcalls from the audience.

But if you wanted to know where the major candidates for mayor of Chicago stand on community development issues, you found out on Feb. 8 at the Forum preceding the 17th annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards.

Rather than array the candidates debate-style and let them bounce off one another, CNDA organizers brought them onstage one at a time for a 20-minute “conversation” with Julia Stasch, vice president of U.S. programs for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and herself a former mayoral chief of staff.

So while it was tamer than the typical campaign-trail candidate mash-up, the 300 or more community organizers and practitioners in the audience at the UIC Forum came away with a sharper sense of how well-informed each candidate is on neighborhood problems … and what they might do as mayor.

Stasch welcomed each by reminding that, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city has fostered a “growing partnership” with community leaders and has been highly supportive, for instance, of the Quality of Life Plans developed through LISC/Chicago’s New Communities Program.

Indeed, all four candidates were earlier supplied with a “mayoral briefing paper” by NCP groups that outlines what is succeeding in the neighborhoods and what still needs to be done. 

“How will you build on and strengthen these partnerships?” Stasch challenged each candidate as they sat down for their 1-on-1 conversation. She also asked each about the foreclosure crisis, public safety, education, and if time allowed, a question or two submitted in writing by members of the audience.

Here are edited highlights of the candidates’ responses in order of their appearance:

Rahm Emanuel began by announcing a plan to retrofit 25,000 homes and commercial buildings with energy-saving devices and weatherization, with the work coordinated by “community groups that know where to do the work."

He next threw a verbal bouquet at LISC/Chicago, which organizes the annual CNDA and assists many other neighborhood uplift programs in which many members of the audience either participate directly or sponsor financially.

“LISC has done a fabulous job of accessing public resources in a coordinated and comprehensive fashion,” the former congressman and White House chief of staff said. “I believe the city can learn more from LISC than the other way around. LISC does it the right way – comprehensively. I will try to import into the public sector LISC’s comprehensive, integrative approach.

But Stasch challenged Emanuel—the front-runner according to media polls leading up to the Feb. 22 primary—on his assertion that there is “a ton of money on the sidelines” to do “energy conversion.” She pointed out that the federal Community Development Block Grant program – the typical source of weatherization funds – is being targeted for a 50 percent cut.

Emanuel countered that any federal cuts will be partially offset by his determination to reduce the city’s overhead on such programs from 20 percent to 10 percent, allowing 90 percent of the funds to flow to the neighborhoods.

Asked about his other priorities, Emanuel first cited elimination of “food deserts” and vowed to convene a meeting in the mayor’s office of supermarket CEOs who would be advised in advance: “Do not come to this meeting unprepared with your plans.”

Emanuel said as many as 600,000 city residents live in neighborhoods that lack ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “That is unconscionable,” he said, prompting applause from the CNDA audience.

He also called for the southward extension of the CTA’s Red Line rapid transit, for diversion of more tax increment (TIF) funds to neighborhoods that truly need it, for improved neighborhood schools and a greater role for neighborhood groups both in counseling homeowners to avoid foreclosures and in the recycling of dwellings once they’ve been foreclosed.

. . .

Candidate Miguel Del Valle responded to Stasch’s opening “partnership” challenge with a sobering assessment of what the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession have done to the city’s neighborhoods.

“We’ve lost a tremendous amount of ground in the city of Chicago,” Del Valle said. “As an individual who has been involved with so many community organizations and projects, I can tell you right now it feels like a drop in the bucket. And I say this with all due respect to everyone in this room who has worked very hard.”

The city clerk recounted the failings of government regulators to intervene as lenders poured mortgage money into neighborhoods without regard to borrowers’ ability to repay. Asked by Stasch what’s to be done, now that foreclosures are rife and so much damage has been done, Del Valle did not hesitate.

“I’ll be the first mayor who is going to aggressively promote and support community organizing,” he said, to unsurprising applause. “We have to start at the grassroots level. People have to take control at the neighborhood level and work with the city” because the best development is done “not by people who come in, do a project and leave the neighborhood,” but by those who live there and will continue to live with the consequences.

“You start with one block, then the next block. You create a model. You give people hope,” Del Valle said.

On the subject of education, Del Valle complained, “We’ve set up a parallel system of public education in the City of Chicago” split between high-performing magnet and charter schools and too many unimproved neighborhood schools, 160 of which don’t even have in-school libraries.

On public safety, he praised the work of the Cease Fire anti-violence program, called for “restorative justice” and promised to “reinvent the CAPS program” into something more than a monthly meeting for the public to complain about “hot spots.”

. . .

Former schools chairman and mayoral chief-of-staff Gery Chico responded to Stasch’s “partnership” challenge by recounting his experience when, as Daley’s top aide, he approached the public schools in 1995 about joining the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Area Program (SNAP) program to spruce up targeted blocks and business districts.

“The answer was ‘No,’ ” Chico recalled, prompting knowing laughter from the audience. Later, Chico said, as the top school official, he made sure the schools were a major contributor of capital improvements under the SNAP program.

“As mayor,” Chico said, “It would be my mission to continue these [city/neighborhood] partnerships … Jobs, to me, will be the cornerstone about making these [neighborhood redevelopment] plans a success.”

“Every institution [hospitals, colleges, etc.] needs to have capital invested in the area. We also need outside investment, we need private investment, to make these local plans work. And there has to be a level of engagement.”

Besides improved neighborhood schools and more charters, Chico declared, “I’ve called for vouchers” – a position likely not shared by many in the audience. “In some communities,” he explained, “where no progress is being made, we can no longer sit by and watch young people’s lives go by.”

Asked his response to the foreclosure crisis, Chico complained lenders are abandoning repossessed properties and “this is the real danger that you run.” He recollected 15 years ago helping Mayor Daley set up a task force to identify and demolish abandoned buildings rather than let them become crime scenes and drug dens. This time around, he said, the emphasis should be on prevention of foreclosure, and on recycling, not removing, foreclosed dwellings.

One weapon in that fight, Chico said, ought to be increased use of TIF funds, adding that he supports the proposed “Sweet Home Chicago” ordinance to dedicate more TIF revenue to affordable housing.

. . .

Carol Moseley Braun opened by saying, “We have greater challenges now than when some of these programs and initiatives were started.” She said she recently spotted “an entire village of homeless people” camped under a North Side expressway overpass.

“We have to end some of the silos, frankly, in which one group does one thing and another does another thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of top-down talk and planning. …We have to address these issues of pervasive poverty in the city of Chicago through business development in the neighborhoods … [and] cutting through some of the red tape. The city government can do more.”

The former U.S. Senator and ambassador proposed having “a liaison in the mayor’s office to work with the NGO [private, non-profit] sector” and using non-profits to provide services wherever possible rather than try to provide services through the public sector.

As for public safety, Moseley Braun called for a police department that supplements local efforts rather than being “an occupying force … and we need to restore the old-fashioned concept of the beat cop walking the street.” More attention also needs be paid, she said, to providing young people with alternatives to crime, from midnight basketball leagues to job creation.

“We have whole neighborhoods that are repositories of boarded-up properties,” she said of the foreclosure mess. “Get the national government, especially HUD, focused on the problem ... Frankly, I would call for a moratorium on foreclosures in the city of Chicago. … They are causing real destruction across the city.”

Click here to view videos of this year's award winners.

Click here to see news coverage about CNDA. 

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