Chicago, IL

Chicago AIS Commissioner asked in Confirmation Hearing About Buying Vacant Buildings to Address Migrant, Homeless Needs

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Sandra Blakemore, the Mayor’s appointee for Commissioner of AIS, and Aldermen discuss options for helping homeless and new migrants to Chicago through citywide real estate investments

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During yesterday’s Chicago 2023 Budget Hearings, the full appointment of Acting Commissioner of Department of Assets, Information, and Services, Sandra Blakemore was considered. During her confirmation hearing, one issue that continued to be raised had to do with resources for Chicago’s homeless and migrant populations. The aldermen were attempting to come up with a better way of handling the situation, since currently when someone is in need, there is a call put into the alderman for the ward who has to try to scramble to find accommodations or to help meet other needs.

A report given at the beginning of October, estimated that there are currently 65,000 homeless people in Chicago. This has become increasingly evident as “tent cities” have appeared in a different areas across the city. In the past representatives with the Bring Chicago Home campaign have supported an increase in the Real Estate Transfer Tax on properties over $1 million by 1.9 percent, which they claim would amount to $160 million a year. This is one strategy that could provide a dedicated funding source to help Chicago’s homeless.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2023 budget includes a $10 million line item to decrease homelessness in the city. But many feel that this is not nearly enough.

Coupled with resident homelessness is the problem of helping migrants being sent to Chicago from Texas. As of October 13th, over 3000 asylum seekers had been bused into the city from Texas and Florida since August 31st. To deal with this influx migrants, in Sept. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation which made it possible for the state to get resources to help these individuals more quickly.

“How long this will go on, I can’t tell you. ... I anticipate this will be an ongoing challenge,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Where at first, 1 and maybe 2 busloads were sent to Chicago each day, now they are arriving at a rate of are 5-6 buses a day filled with asylum seekers.

While Preckwinkle is appealing to the federal government to help address this emergency, newly appointed AIS Commissioner Sandra Blakemore and several aldermen discussed local solutions that could possibly be put in place before the cold weather hits. on a local way to help the homeless and newly arrived asylum seekers.

Alderman Harry Osterman (Ward 48), raised the issue of large number of homelessness and migrant populations who have a number of needs, one of the most important of which is housing, to help them get on their feet. He suggested that Blakemore take the initiative to get the appropriate departments together, in particular AIS and OEMC along with those in the real estate industry under contract with the city, to look for vacant apartment buildings that could be used for housing. The alderman said that a citywide effort would be more effective than people calling aldermen who frequently don’t have the information needed such that they have to scramble to find out who does.

Blakemore replied to these concerns, stating that they have begun these efforts and are working with a brokerage firm to create a portfolio of possible vacant buildings that will fit the needs of different populations.

During the hearing Alderman James Cappleman (Ward 46), also weighed in on the topic, saying that as a former Franciscan Friar he is aware that many religious orders are decreasing in numbers. Due to this, he reported that there are a lot of rectories and convents that are now vacant that could also be used to house the homeless and asylum seekers. He advocated looking into this option, believing that it would be likely that such buildings could be purchased at a good price.

Related to this issue, Alderman Raymond Lopez (Ward 15) was concerned about who is paying for all of these purchases and renovations. He requested information from Blakemore on what each site is costing taxpayers and asked about financial support going to partnering organizations to provide additional services.

Lopez also mentioned the issue of standard of care saying that he had gotten reports of sites where guards were acting inappropriately towards those they were supposed to be protecting and stories about people doing laundry in outdoor bathrooms. Stating that the standard of care needs to be addressed, he asked for information to be given to the council about the standard of care in every facility being used to house homeless and newly arrived migrants.

A voice vote was taken on confirming the appointment of Sandra Blakemore as AIS Commissioner, which passed with no dissenting votes.

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