There is an affordable housing crisis in the United States. Often painted as the inevitable movement of the market, over 500,000 individuals are currently experiencing homelessness and 11 million Americans spend more than half their paycheck on rent. Affordable housing, like all other social goods under capitalism, is something that must be struggled and fought for.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderman of the 35th ward in Chicago, is on the front lines of the struggle for housing justice in Chicago. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America and recently re-elected to Chicago’s City Council this spring, Alderman Ramirez-Rosa and I talked about his faith and the fight for affordable housing in Chicago.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Adam Joyce: What is your faith background?
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa: I was born and raised in the city of Chicago and was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. I briefly flirted with joining the United Church of Christ, but based on a conversation I had with my very Catholic grandmother, I chose not to.
AJ: There is a housing crisis across the United States. In a recent op-ed for Crain’s, you referenced how Chicagoans have seen their average rent increase by more than 30% between 2010 and 2015. There are 86,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the city. What has this crisis looked like in the 35th Ward?
CRR: In Logan Square, the neighborhood that principally makes up the 35th ward, about 19,000 working-class, Lantix residents have been pushed out in the last decade. We know this because of census data, anecdotes, and the collapse of our local institutions—whether they be churches or nonprofits or schools. We see it in our blocks. Blocks that were once teeming with life and children, block parties—the attendance has gone down year after year. It’s disruptive, not just for individuals, but for the entire community.
AJ: How does your faith inform your fight for housing justice here in Chicago?
CRR: I look at Catholic social teaching, read the gospel of Matthew, and I don’t understand how someone couldn’t be a socialist if you call yourself a follower of Jesus. The Bible is very clear on what God wants us to do as it relates to caring for the poor and disenfranchised. There is a homeless encampment that has been in our neighborhood for upwards of 12 years. I have fought calls from some residents of the 35th ward to displace them—arrest and criminalize them. And because of my faith, I feel a responsibility to fight for things like the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would create an additional tax on the sale of very expensive properties to fund homeless services and housing.
AJ: The economic violence of gentrification is often presented as a law of nature, like gravity. Yet gentrification begins with disinvestment and racist policies, from the cutting of social services to the reduction of infrastructure investments and continues with the actions of a vast range of institutions—banks, developers, landlords, government agencies, and so on. How do we respond to this trans-institutional failure?
CRR: There is a common fallacy that if only we let the market do what it needs to do, we are going to see an outpouring of new units. With these new units, the supply will meet the demand and prices will drop. It’s a very neat argument. But what we have seen is that the forces of capital don’t build units with working families and their incomes in mind—they build luxury units. And with so much hoarded wealth, they often choose to keep units empty rather than sell them at an affordable price.
If you look at the data and experiences of Chicago and cities across the nation, you see that the market is not going to build the affordable housing that we need. Even when there is a 50% housing stock increase in cities like Seattle, the temporary reprieve in climbing prices eventually ends. Building more affordable units is the only way that we can address the issues of homelessness in our communities; the only way we can ensure that people have a dignified place to sleep.
While lack of current affordable housing drives displacement in Logan Square, the other element is greed. Big landlords and developers purchase one-to-two-bedroom units and double the rent the next day. That’s possible in the city of Chicago because of the lack of rent control or rent stabilization policies.
We need the government to fund and build affordable housing. This looks like what Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling for on a national level through the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. Instead of relying on the existing federal funding, which pushes a lot of money towards private developers via tax credits, we should spend a significant amount of public money on building truly public units that are dignified and green.
AJ: You have been fighting for the Emmett Street affordable housing project for years. Tell me about what that process. What did it look like to get not only community buy-in, but a community-led movement to push this forward?
CRR: The Emmett Street Project was a fight of political philosophies and wills. Prior to my running for office the Metropolitan Planning Council initiated a participatory planning process to talk about what should be done with the under-utilized Emmett Street parking lot. The demand from the community—coming from various community groups such as Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and residents—was for a 100%-affordable housing development.
The community’s number one concern was affordability, so I met with the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), and they told me they were releasing an RFP (request for proposal) for the site that called for 30%-affordable housing. It would be sold to the highest bidder. I was very clear the community wanted 100%-affordable housing, and the DPD asked, “Why would you do that? The city needs money.”
While the city’s need for money is a legitimate public policy concern, the community’s need for affordable housing is also a legitimate concern. This was about making a choice. We had the funding and we had the ability to accomplish this, so after an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel that I would vote for his water utility tax hike for his support of the development—a deal community organizations thought I should take—we had a set of good meetings with DPD. And then we hit this wall. Suddenly we were not hearing back from DPD, and I learned through the grapevine that the mayor’s office doesn’t want to give this to me, especially with the approaching 2019 election.
At that point, we circled back with the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and reinitiated an outside campaign through actions, petitioning, articles, and Las Posadas events. We pressed our case through this inside/outside strategy—the community is pushing on the outside, I’m pushing on the inside. Toward the end of 2018, we finally got a commitment from DPD that Bickerdike, the nonprofit developer, could apply for the sale of the land and for the zoning change. It took multiple years of organizing, but the parallel tracks of pressure, and then the community input process that we have in the 35th Ward (e.g., community driven zoning process), got us where we need to be.
AJ: One of the most difficult aspects of the housing crisis is that individuals acting alone can do nothing. The only way for the working class to have any say over their neighborhood and city is through solidarity. How can faith communities help build solidarity and make Chicago a more just and equitable city?
CRR: Solidarity is justice in action. It begins with treating others as you want to be treated. When I am down, I would want someone to pick me up. When I’m fighting to put a roof over my head or for a just and living wage, I would want people to fight alongside me as well. It’s critically important that those who worship in the community lend their voices to the fights going on in that community. With the Emmett Street development, it was the clergy and congregation members who came out time and time again. Whether it was organizing events or ensuring they were there to testify at important community or zoning meetings. When decision makers see people of faith present and involved, it assures them that they are on the right side. There is power when clergy stand there in their vestments and say, “This is the right thing to do.”
AJ: Police and policing are often the primary response to the housing crisis—from enforcing evictions, to homelessness sweeps, to broken windows policing (valuing property over people), or even using the proposed new cop academy as a beachhead of gentrification. This prioritization of policing is reflected in the budget: over 40% of Chicago’s budget goes to policing. How can the church offer a counter-narrative to the idea that policing is an appropriate response to the deeper crises within our neighborhoods?
CRR: Jesus is clear, he wants us to feed and house and clothe those that are in need. Ultimately, police violence is not a solution to homelessness. It may displace the homeless encampment, but all you are doing kicking them while they are already down and forcing that issue into another neighborhood. Catholic social teaching tells me to stand with the poor, ensure that workers have their rights respected, to be a good steward of God’s creation. Matthew 25 doesn’t say, “I was hungry and you called the police.”
AJ: This is obviously an exhausting and continual fight for you and your constituents. What is giving you hope?
CR: What gives me hope is the number of people that have consistently supported the Emmett Street development. While it took five years, justice is prevailing through a collective effort. Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” During the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike, seeing tens of thousands of teachers go out on strike for 11 days and seeing the city of Chicago rally around them and winning a contract for communities and schools that had long been denied equitable investment. To see people waking up in solidarity and action together… that gives me hope.
AJ: Experiencing church on the strike line.
CRR: It is! That’s when I feel closest to God.
Adam Joyce is the assistant director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. He is a member of DSA and has directed communications for Chicago electoral campaigns. He has also written for a range of publications such as Sojourners, Christian Century, The Other Journal, and Englewood Review of Books.