How a Socialist City Councilor Won 100% Affordable Housing in a Gentrifying Chicago Neighborhood

In Chicago’s Logan Square, gentrification has run amok. That didn’t stop socialist city councilor Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and community groups from demanding and winning 100 percent affordable housing in the community’s heart near public transit. Here’s how they did it.

City Councilor Carlos Ramirez-Rosa led a bottom-up, public campaign for a 100 percent affordable housing development in Chicago's Logan Square. (rebecca anne / Flickr)

From the top of Logan Square’s newest seven-story apartment building at 2602 North Emmett Street, just steps from the train stop bearing the neighborhood’s name, the view is incredible. I can see the green grass of the Logan Square Monument, the neighborhood’s heart, and the silver and black roofs of the neighborhood’s historic buildings. In the distance, I see the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center, and all the best of Chicago’s skyline.

In Chicago’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, this is usually the kind of coveted view and central location only the wealthy can enjoy. But they won’t be able to buy all this building has to offer. Instead, all of the building’s hundred apartments are publicly funded and reserved for poor and working-class people.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. It took my election to city council in 2015 as its lone socialist and a years-long community struggle against former mayor Rahm Emanuel, real estate developers, and wealthy homeowners to win this all-affordable housing development.

Stalemate With the City

In 2014, the year after Logan Square was named by real estate website Redfin as one of the “hottest neighborhoods in the country,” Mayor Emanuel’s administration began pushing to redevelop the neighborhood’s underused public parking lot, conveniently located right next to the Logan Square Blue Line train station, half an hour from O’Hare Airport, and less than that from downtown.

The lot was a potential gold mine for the city. Selling the lot to the highest bidder — likely a luxury real estate developer — would bring in an immediate infusion of cash and put the redeveloped lot on the city’s tax rolls, though the revenue would not necessarily have gone toward public programs or spending.

In response to the city’s push to redevelop the site, the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit urban planning organization, brought together local stakeholders for a participatory planning process in 2014. The need for affordable housing at the lot was identified as a top priority by community residents. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a community organization that has long fought for the neighborhood’s working-class residents, called for the lot’s redevelopment as 100 percent affordable housing, meaning all of the apartments would be restricted to tenants making no more than 60 percent of the area median income, currently $35,580 per year for an individual and $50,760 per year for a family of four.

Logan Square Boulevard, Chicago. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, Logan Square had seen more than nineteen thousand working-class, mostly Latinx residents pushed out by skyrocketing rents since 2000 — a number that has only continued rising since then. Displacement hasn’t just interrupted individual lives, it has eroded the fabric of the community. Churches, community organizations, and public schools have collapsed as the residents who once held them all together were forced from the neighborhood in search of more affordable housing.

Running for city council in 2015, I committed to support the community’s demand for a 100 percent affordable housing development to replace the parking lot if I was elected. Shortly after my inauguration, I was notified that the city was preparing to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the site. Intent on keeping my campaign promise, I scheduled a meeting with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD).

In a conference room on the tenth floor of City Hall, I asked the DPD staff sitting at the table about the RFP the Emanuel administration planned to release. I asked about the percentage of affordable units the RFP would require. “Thirty percent,” they said. I told them it needed to be 100 percent. They looked uncomfortable.

“Alderman, how do you suggest we accomplish a 100 percent affordable housing development at this site?” they asked.

“Sell the land to a nonprofit affordable housing developer for $1, provide local public development and affordable housing dollars,” I responded.

Exasperated, the city staffer sitting to my right put her face in her hands. Her colleague spoke up. “Alderman, the city is in dire need of revenue. We need to sell this lot to the highest bidder and put it on the tax rolls.”

“That’s a legitimate public policy concern,” I said. “So is my community’s dire need for affordable housing. And we have an opportunity here to use public land and public dollars to meet that need.”

We ended that meeting at a stand still. Chicago’s system of aldermanic prerogative, in which aldermen defer to each other on local issues before the City Council — meant I could block Mayor Emanuel’s administration from moving forward with their planned RFP. My colleagues would not vote to sell the public lot to a private developer without my support. But Mayor Emanuel’s control of city finances and city departments meant a 100 percent affordable housing development could not move forward without his support.

After meeting with DPD, for good measure, I introduced an ordinance to downzone the parking lot and restrict its redevelopment — a shot across the bow of Mayor Emanuel’s office that I would not support an RFP that called for less than 100 percent affordable housing at the lot.

A month later, one of the city’s most connected developers asked to meet with me. Sitting at the conference table at the front of my ward office, he told me he’d been sent by someone at City Hall. Who? He refused to disclose.

The developer told me he had heard the city was planning to issue an RFP and was interested in submitting a proposal for a dense mixed-use development with market-rate apartments. I told him what I had said on the campaign trail and to DPD: I would only support a proposal that was 100 percent affordable. He left less than pleased.

Organizer in Office

Moving forward, the demand to develop a fully affordable building at the lot became a central fight during my first term in office and a key issue during my 2019 reelection campaign. I knew that to break the stalemate with the Emanuel administration, we needed to build a bottom-up, public campaign that would make blocking a proposal for a 100 percent affordable housing development a political liability for the mayor.

The demand for an all-affordable housing development couldn’t just come from me or one community organization — it needed to be a popular demand felt at City Hall.

In 2016, local nonprofit affordable housing developer Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation (BRC) approached me about developing a 100 percent affordable proposal for the lot. I told them I would welcome such a proposal and connected them with LSNA, the local preservation society Logan Square Preservation, and the neighborhood chamber of commerce to workshop the proposal and incorporate local community organization input.

As BRC and local community groups worked on the details of a proposal, my office, LSNA, Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, and the ward-based independent political organization that formed in the aftermath of my election, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35), started organizing to build community support for a 100 percent affordable development and put pressure on the Emanuel administration to support such a development. We did so through door-knocking and organizing community meetings, marches, letters of support from community leaders, organizations, and businesses, call-in days to the mayor’s office and DPD commissioner, press conferences, and events with local organizations.

The development overlooks the monument in Logan Square. (Gapers Block)

We built real “structure tests” that gauged the level of community support, which included asking local residents to sign commitment cards in support of the project, and asking residents who had signed cards to continuously show their support by making phone calls and sending emails to Mayor Emanuel and DPD’s commissioner.

As we organized an “outside” pressure campaign, we also looked to organize on the “inside.” That included me requesting a meeting with Mayor Emanuel to discuss the development. It took me some time to get a meeting with him. As an alderman who stood with grassroots and progressive community organizations in opposition to his neoliberal policies, I wasn’t his favorite member of the council. But when he did finally meet with me, I told him that redeveloping the parking lot as a 100 percent affordable development was a top concern for my community. He shared with me that he needed support passing a water utility tax hike to fund public employee pensions.

As someone who had consistently opposed balancing the city’s budget on the backs of working families, voting for a water utility tax hike would feel like a betrayal of my principles, and it would not be without consequences. I took the proposition of trading my vote for a water utility tax hike for the mayor’s support of the all-affordable housing development to the UN35 board. After many weeks of internal discussion, the organization collectively decided that if my vote would not be the deciding vote on the tax hike, I should take the offer. Agitating and polarizing as socialists in elected office is important — so too is ensuring affordable housing.

Roll call votes in the Chicago City Council are taken in numerical order of ward. When the roll call vote for the water utility tax hike reached me, the 35th Ward alderman, it was unclear to me whether or not the measure had the votes to pass, so I voted Nay. As the clerk reached the 50th and final ward it was clear the measure had the necessary votes, I changed my vote from Nay to Aye.

While it seemed like we now had the Emanuel administration’s support to move a 100 percent affordable proposal forward, we knew that we would need to continue organizing on the outside. So we continued our door-to-door canvassing effort. The decision to not let the “inside” work take precedence over the “outside” work proved to be a wise-one: it soon became clear that Mayor Emanuel would not hold up his end of the bargain. The Emanuel administration would try to run out the clock on my first term, hoping that I wouldn’t win reelection and a more developer-friendly alderman with no interest in redeveloping the parking lot into affordable housing would take my place.

Reelection Campaign

My reelection campaign became a head-to-head fight against developer interests. Amanda Yu Dieterich, the wife of Mayor Emanuel’s deputy budget director, was recruited to run against me. Mark Fishman, a notorious Logan Square landlord and developer, contributed roughly $100,000 to her campaign. Dieterich’s campaign sent out dozens of mailers, funded by real estate lobbying groups, calling me a “deadbeat” who deserved to be fired. Two weeks before the election, Fishman hung massive banners that said “Vote Amanda Yu Dieterich” on apartment buildings and in empty storefront windows he owned across the ward.

Yu Dieterich was ambiguous about her position on the development of the parking lot. At a public forum, she argued that we needed to preserve the parking at the site. Many assumed that if she were elected, she would scrap the plans for an all-affordable housing development.

A public meeting hosted by Ramirez-Rosa’s office. (Courtesy Carlos Ramirez-Rosa)

The election wasn’t just about securing my seat, it was about winning a mandate for our demands — and it worked. Immediately after winning my reelection over Yu Dieterich by nearly twenty points, the Department of Planning and Development informed my office and BRC that the city would provide the roughly $40 million necessary to build the all-affordable housing development.

In April 2019, with the funding now secured, my office hosted a public meeting under my community-driven zoning and development process to ensure the development had the community’s support. We phone banked and text banked every neighborhood resident who had signed a card in support of redeveloping the site as an all-affordable development. Our years-long organizing effort and structure tests paid off: of the over five hundred residents who attended the public meeting, three hundred fifty of them approved of the all-affordable proposal put forward by BRC.

Our community sent a very clear message in support of affordable housing and a powerful sign to City Hall that there would be no backtracking on this project — it would move forward with the full support and strength of an organized community.

In the subsequent months, I would work with newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Department of Housing to go through the necessary legislative process to allocate the funds, approve the zoning, and transfer ownership of the lot. I would call my colleagues to ask for their support, and the community groups would continue to turn out local residents to every single City Council meeting.

After the hundred-unit, all-affordable development received the final City Council approval necessary, Fishman, associates, and local realtors filed a last-ditch legal challenge to halt the development. Thankfully, a judge dismissed the frivolous lawsuit.

On August 31, 2020, after a five-year fight, BRC broke ground on our community’s hundred-unit, 100 percent affordable housing development just steps from the Logan Square Blue Line.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa with supporters from the community. (Courtesy of Carlos Ramirez-Rosa)

Where We Go From Here

Our five-year struggle to win this all-affordable housing development proved it was possible for the city to use public resources to address displacement and meet the public need for affordable housing. It has also paved the way for similar developments across Chicago.

In gentrifying Albany Park, socialist Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez has won approval for a sixty-unit, all-affordable housing development walking distance from public transit. And Chicago now has its first ever equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) plan, which seeks to replicate the success of our development by spurring the construction of more dense affordable housing developments near public transit.

The one hundred-unit, all-affordable housing development in Logan Square. (Courtesy of Micah Uetricht)

These developments will not reverse the tide of gentrification and displacement on their own. We need to win rent control and rent stabilization policies, and we need the government to aggressively fund and build affordable housing. That means we need to increase federal funding for public housing and repeal the Stafford Amendment, which caps the number of housing units that a public housing authority can build — two measures that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would accomplish.

And as we’ve seen from my community’s five-year fight, we need to elect more socialists to local and national offices who can play critical roles organizing alongside their communities to de-commodify housing and ensure that housing is a human right.