The disappearance of Bring Chicago Home is an opportunity for the mayor

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The apparent demise of Bring Chicago Home, one of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s signature initiatives, is a harsh setback for a mayor who has already seen enough in a term that has yet to reach the one-year mark.

The expected defeat of the referendum (we expect the counting of mail-in votes will likely change the result) surely came as a pleasant surprise to those in the real estate industry, many of whom privately believed they would likely lose at the polls after failing to get the vote annulled in court. This page agreed with critics who expressed a desire to do more to house those living on our city’s streets, but not by quadrupling the one-time tax paid on the purchase and sale of many commercial and multifamily properties at a time when Downtown buildings are sold at a loss and the higher costs for apartment owners are simply passed on to tenants.

The industry voices we heard did not gloat after voters rejected the idea. To their credit, they offered to brainstorm with policymakers to address the problem, the root of which is a shortage of affordable housing in Chicago. “We want to work with the city to find real solutions that benefit neighborhood housing and increase the supply of naturally affordable housing in Chicago,” said Michael Glasser, president of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance.

We wish we could say the same for activists and other Bring Chicago Home supporters, who generally reacted by blaming their opponents’ efforts to defeat the measure rather than acknowledging the obvious problem. The public did not trust this mayor, who is struggling to convince even those sympathetic to his views that he is up to the job, with what appeared to be a blank check. No detailed plan was provided for how to spend the estimated $100 million a year this tax would generate, beyond the vague assurance that it would go toward alleviating homelessness.

After they finish licking their wounds, the mayor and the City Council’s reasonable supporters of Bring Chicago Home, like the vice mayor, Ald. Walter Burnett, No. 27, should take up the offer from Glasser and others in his orbit. Mental health treatment, job training, and other similar services are surely needed to help those without a roof over their heads. (Some good news Tuesday for those fighting on behalf of Chicago’s homeless was the provision of several locally-targeted seven-figure grants by megaphilanthropist MacKenzie Scott, some of which were aimed at those working in the sector.)

Still, a real solution to the underlying problem lies primarily in getting more housing built.

That’s not complicated. What is more difficult is pulling the many political levers necessary to achieve that goal. These include zoning and permitting reforms, public sector financial assistance, tax incentives, and a greater willingness by council members to allow higher densities and mixed-income housing in their districts. Such efforts are often thankless and even tedious (and don’t seem as flashy as “soaking the rich” solutions like BCH), but it’s the hard work of true governance.

A wise politician would mount a listening campaign after such a voter rebuke and seek the opinions of those who know how to build housing and what the impediments are to doing so. These include nonprofit developers and the private sector.

On a national scale, we have already seen politicians recover from humiliating defeats. The recipe usually includes a certain measure of humility. Bill Clinton, in his first term as president, lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans after decades of Democratic control and it all looked like a one-term term. He turned around, made some real concessions to his enemies, and we know the rest of that story.

No one disagrees that homelessness (and lack of affordable housing) is an urgent problem. Chicago voters have directed the mayor to be more pragmatic and specific about how to address it. Going to?

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