Alderman Mell, It Doesn’t Take Magic to Fight Displacement

Last month, the affordable housing coalition Chicago Rehab Network attended a session of the City Council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee to argue that the city must take bold action to combat the gentrification and displacement facing Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods. As reported by The Daily Line, Housing Committee member and 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell acknowledged the affordable housing crisis gripping her constituents, stating she was “frustrated” by the displacement of families from their long-time homes in her ward.

Photo credit: DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

We in ATU are frustrated, too — frustrated, angry, and motivated to fight for our homes and communities. But Ald. Mell appears to lack our sense of urgency. Confronted with a concrete suggestion to triple subsidized rental stock in the city, Mell, with all the clout of an aldermanic office behind her, only said she wished she had a “magic wand” to stop displacement.

We do not deny that magic would be an extraordinary tool, but this performance of naïvety is an insult to the families that are systematically being pushed out by the very ordinary problem of gentrification, in Albany Park and across the city. While it is startling to see an elected official dismiss the possibility of taking real-life action to reverse the changes happening in her ward, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Ald. Mell’s inability to articulate any strategy to combat gentrification is nothing new.

We have no illusions about vanishing these problems with the wave of a wand. Instead, we are working within our community and deploying an array of strategies to fight displacement. As tenants united, we have organized rent strikes, marches, and call-in campaigns to bring developers to the negotiating table with the people they’ve tried to displace. We have gone on the offensive in partnership with community-minded attorneys to file affirmative suits against landlords who exploit their tenants. And we have repeatedly tried to collaborate with Ald. Mell, only to be met with met with silence or dismissiveness.

A flyer from a 2017 anti-eviction campaign. Mell has since promised not to take any more money from Silver, but not the rest of the developers she gladhands and works closely with.

We firmly believe that power rises up from the people, and we have presented Ald. Mell with multiple opportunities to use her office to support the people she is supposed to represent, to no avail. We have asked that she require developers who purchase property in the 33rd Ward to inform the neighborhood and create, with active input from tenants and neighbors, a Community Benefits Agreement to ensure that community members’ voices are heard when decisions impacting the ward are made. We have implored Ald. Mell to use her office to facilitate negotiations between tenants and landlords who try to evade even communicating with those that they are displacing.

Insisting that she is the city’s best alderman on the issue of affordable housing, Ald. Mell suggests it is ridiculous to criticize her inaction. In her ward office, she styles herself as an expert on housing who needs not take advice from her constituents. But in the chambers of city council, when presented with the plain fact that the city needs to prioritize spending on affordable housing to avoid a catastrophe, she admits that she’s at a loss for solutions.

Maybe if she listened more closely to the needs of constituents who are fighting for their homes every day, she’d spend less time wishing for a magic wand. Maybe if she stood up to the Mayor who appointed her — and the real estate developers whose interests he has prioritized — she would see that the real power to build a better Chicago can be found in the efforts of the people who call this city home. With Mayor Emanuel having announced that he won’t seek re-election in 2019, Mell is one of many aldermen now facing the loss of the single figure whose agenda they’ve represented in City Hall.

Alderman Mell, the community is here to meet with you if you’re ready to start serving your constituents.


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Read our June, 2018 Newsletter: A Win for Language Justice, Policing & Gentrification, Our Upcoming Spanish Newsletter, and Interrogating Ideas of “Affordable Housing”

Article: Policing and Gentrification — Mass Displacement and the “Community Watch”


The Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) is an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left. As an independent collective based in Chicago, we strategize together to defend and enforce our right to dignified housing. We believe that housing is a human right, not a commodity! We fight for an end to all of evictions, and for community control of housing through the building of popular power.

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