PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday September 10th, 2014, 4:52pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: Inspector General's Authority, SROs & CHA Oversight

Progress Illinois provides some of the highlights from Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's floor leader, introduced an ordinance at Wednesday's council meeting that would remove the legislative inspector general's authority to investigate council members and aldermanic staff, giving it instead to the city inspector general.

The proposed ordinance comes after aldermen raised eyebrows in July when they agreed to shift the authority to investigate aldermanic campaign contributions from Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan's office to the city's Board of Ethics, which did not want the investigative powers. 

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about the latest proposal, O'Connor said, “Whether or not people want to question the motivation, the result will be a more comprehensive office, tax savings in terms of duplication of effort and I do think a better way to function." 

“The idea of having a competent investigator is something that I think everybody in the City Council embraces and this will help us get to that point,” the alderman added.

Most aldermen back the ordinance, which would not allow the city inspector general to conduct investigations that stem only from anonymous allegations. City Inspector General Joe Ferguson is reportedly on board with the proposal because it strengthens his office.

In remarks to reporters after today's council meeting, Emanuel stressed that "nobody is saying get rid of an inspector general."

"Today, the city council has an inspector general, and the question now is not whether you're going to have it," but which inspector general's office will have the responsibility, the mayor said. 

"Nobody is saying we want to weaken" the inspector general, Emanuel continued. "The question now is how strong do we want it? Where do we want to put the resources? And to make sure that there's an inspector general who can be an ally in identifying the type of changes you need to make to better serve the public."

The mayor himself moved Wednesday to bolster Ferguson's powers.

Emanuel introduced two separate measures that would expand the inspector general's oversight and investigative authority to include the Public Building Commission.

“Moving from a contracted Inspector General to a full-time Inspector General will increase efficiencies and enhance oversight over the PBC,” Emanuel said in a statement after the council meeting. “From rewriting the entire ethics code in collaboration with the City Council and the IG to achieving Shakman compliance, my administration is increasing accountability and changing the way Chicago government does business.”

Aldermen with the Progressive Reform Caucus were encouraged by the developments at today's council meeting.

More than a year ago, the progressive caucus introduced a package of ordinances that would give the city inspector general's office even greater muscle, including autonomy over hiring, the "ability to serve, enforce, and defend its own subpoena" and a guaranteed budget of "no less than .1 percent" of "the annual appropriation of all funds in the city’s annual operating budget." The ordinances have been bottled up in the Rules Committee ever since they were introduced in May of 2013.

Progressive Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said his caucus was prepared to pull a procedural move today to bring the stalled ordinances up for a vote. But the aldermen decided not to do that after learning that O'Connor's proposed ordinance includes several of their requests, including the budget provision.

"This is very successful progress, and it was a good thing we pushed it," Fioretti told Progress Illinois. "We want, at all levels of government, a corruption-free city. I commend my other colleagues on the progressive caucus for pushing this ... and the people of the city of Chicago may have a brighter future if these get through."

The ordinance introduced today does not, however, address the progressive caucus' recommendations on enforcement of subpoenas or attorney-client privilege. 

Fioretti said aldermen will have a chance to debate those and other issues at a council hearing expected soon on O'Connor's proposal.

After the meeting, Emanuel was asked about the issue of subpoena power, to which he said, "We're going to work through all those issues."

New SRO Ordinance Introduced

The mayor, along with Alds. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ameya Pawar (47th), introduced a "Single-Room Occupancy and Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance" Wednesday meant to curb the loss of affordable housing units in the city.

Over the past three years, some 2,000 SRO and residential hotel units in the city have been lost to market-rate development, according to the Chicago For All coalition, which worked on the ordinance. 

Under the measure introduced today, owners wishing to sell SRO buildings would have to give six-months notice to allow non-profits or a group of residents committed to preserving affordable housing time to put together a purchase offer. Owners looking to convert SRO or residential hotel buildings to market-rate housing could do so, but they would have to keep at least 20 percent of the units affordable for "very and extremely low-income" residents, or pay a “preservation fee” of $200,000 per required unit.

An affordable SRO or residential hotel unit is defined in the ordinance as "one with a monthly rent not exceeding 30 percent of the monthly income of a resident who receives an income of no more than 50 percent of the area median income."

SRO building owners would have to provide a one-time relocation payment of either $2,000 or three months’ rent, whichever is greater, to tenants who are permanently displaced after a sale or conversion. Long-term tenants would be eligible for a one-time relocation fee of $10,600 from building owners who sell a property without giving non-profits a chance to purchase it.

The city, meanwhile, has set a goal to preserve at least 700 at-risk housing units in gentrifying neighborhoods by the end of 2018 through the use of "subsidies and assistance to building owners who wish to continue to provide affordable units," said Felicia Davis, commissioner of the city's building department.

Those incentives could include rental subsidies for tenants and supports to non-profits for building acquisition, Davis explained.

"The resources that come from any [preservation] fines will be to add housing and replacing the housing that is being converted," Davis added.

SRO advocates with the Chicago For All coalition were asked whether they are concerned that property owners might opt to pay the preservation fee rather than maintain affordable units.

"We've worked with developers, and we certainly hope that the incentives that are offered will not allow that to happen, that people will be glad to be part of a solution of taking care of people," said the Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church.

Since 2008, a total of 30 city licensed SRO properties have closed, according to the mayor's office. Currently, there are 73 city licensed SRO buildings, which often provide housing for some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents who have limited housing options. The city currently has about 6,000 existing SROs and residential hotel rooms.

Adelaide Meyers, a former tenant of the now-closed Norman Hotel in Uptown, said the proposed ordinance would protect many vulnerable tenants. She said 150 units of affordable housing at the Norman Hotel, occupied by many low-income and disabled tenants, were wiped out after a market-rate developer took over the building in 2012.

"Losing the 150 units was devastating, but we've lost more than that," she stressed. "We've lost a total of 2,200 units and we could lose up to 6,000 more. As someone who is displaced from my housing as a result of this crisis, I know how much this commitment from the mayor's office means to people across the city."

In July, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance to place a six-month moratorium on converting SROs to market-rate housing in the city. Under the six-month moratorium, the city will not issue building permits that allow for the conversion of some or all of an SRO or residential hotel building "to a commercial, industrial, or other non-residential or residential use," among other requirements. The moratorium was introduced so the city could continue working with various stakeholders to develop a permanent plan to address the issue.

But Eric Rubenstein, executive director of the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation, said building owners do not see the measure introduced Wednesday as a compromise.

The proposed ordinance "will do more harm than good," he said.

"It will force current owners to have to close their doors over time because lenders are going to be scared away from either making fresh loans so we can fix up our properties, and or even allowing us to renew our loans," Rubenstein added. "And without money, we're not going to be able to keep going."

Rubenstein said the "options for owners are being stripped away" under the proposal.

"The way the ordinance is set up, initially you're not even allowed to transfer your ownership, say from a husband to a wife or a son or a daughter. You must go to a non-profit first, who may not even be qualified, and tie your property up for six months," he explained. "Then, if you can't put a deal together, you're allowed only 60 days ... to then do something with the property, other than a non-profit. But that window is so narrow. A lender is going to say, 'We're not going to be under such restrictions like that. We don't need this kind of a business."

Burnett, meanwhile, dismissed the assertion that the new ordinance comes as a political move ahead of the 2015 municipal election.

"For the advocates, for the people who believe in affordable housing, this is the best time for us ... to try to get something done that's going to help people in the city of Chicago," the alderman said.

The current six-month moratorium will expire in January 2015, or when the new SRO ordinance takes effect, if approved.

Keeping The Promise Ordinance

A group of thirteen aldermen introduced the Chicago Housing Initiative's "Keeping the Promise" ordinance, which would provide the Chicago City Council with greater oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

The ordinance comes in light of a report by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which found that the CHA has built up large cash reserves over recent years primarily by holding onto millions of dollars in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.

Each year between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer housing vouchers than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded, the report found. And between 2008 and 2012, the CHA accumulated $432 million in reserves.

"It is unacceptable for a public agency to sit on so much public money without explanation while tens of thousands of families struggle to afford the basic human rights of a decent place to live," said Rod Wilson, executive director of Lugenia Burns Hope Center. "CHA has the money. They have the land, and they have the people, but no housing is being built."

Under the proposed Keeping the Promise ordinance, the CHA would have to provide the council with quarterly reports on, among other things, vacant and offline housing, its voucher utilization rate and progress building replacement public housing.

The CHA would also have to increase the number of annual available housing vouchers and meet voucher funding utilization benchmarks. Failing to meeting the requirements "will result in immediate suspension of new city funding awards to CHA projects," the ordinance reads.

The measure would enforce the CHA's commitments to rebuild replacement housing. It would also require one-for-one replacement of standing low-income housing units.

"One-for-one replacement of all standing public housing is crucial because the Plan for Transportation has left us with a net loss of low-income housing while the need for public housing has grown," said Miguel Suarez, a Julia C. Lathrop Homes resident.  "The CHA has had a net loss of 14,000 affordable units since 1999. And yet we know more than 210,000 families applied for the public housing in 2010 — and 33,000 are still on the combined waiting lists."

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), the measure's lead sponsor, blasted the CHA for hoarding large sums of money while Chicagoans struggle to find affordable housing.

"How dare they," he said. "We're not going to the CHA saying, 'Find some money for us, look under the couch, create something.' ... The millions and millions of dollars are there today."

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), a co-sponsor of the ordinance, added, "I don't want to live in a city where the choices are you live in your car ... or you live in a rodent-infested shelter when the money is there" at the CHA. 

"We really need to keep CHA accountable," she said. "It is unacceptable, and we want change."

City Council OK's Two Collective Bargaining Agreements 

The Chicago City Council also approved new collective bargaining agreements with AFSCME Council 31 and the Illinois Nurses Association.

Both agreements will run until June 30, 2017. They will take effect upon final ratification by the city council, according to a release from the mayor's office.

Among other terms of the agreement with AFSCME, "employees will retroactively receive one percent pay raises January 1, 2013, July 1, 2013, January 1, 2014 and July 1, 2014 and will receive one percent pay raises on January 1, 2015, July 1, 2015, January 1, 2016 and July 1, 2016. Employees will receive a two percent pay raise on January 1, 2017," the release reads.

For the Illinois Nurses Association, "employees will receive a lump sum payment of $700 to be paid 30 days following ratification and approval of this agreement. Employees will retroactively receive one percent pay raises January 1, 2014 and July 1, 2014 and receive pay raises of 1.5 percent on January 1, 2015, 1.25 percent on January 1, 2016 and 1.25 percent on January 1, 2017," among other provisions.


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