Housing Commissioner Andrew Mooney Speaks on the Importance of Addressing the Foreclosure Crisis

Andrew Mooney, Chicago Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, spoke at JCUA‘s 2011 Rabbi J. Marx Social Justice Awards Dinner.  Below is a copy of his powerful speech about the importance of affordable housing and people like the dinner’s honorees, Ralph Brown, Roberta Nechin and David Midgley.   

Andrew Mooney speaking at JCUA's Annual Dinner

Thank you and good evening, thank you Rami.  I am honored to be here.  When Nikki Stein asked me if I’d make these presentations tonight, I responded immediately.  Not only are tonight’s awardees long time champions of social justice, they are dear friends and colleagues, who have had an enormous impact on the things I care about most in this great city.

Ralph, David and Roberta all share the values that are the hallmark of JCUA.  They have dedicated their lives and careers to actualizing justice in the form of affordable housing in livable neighborhoods.  They have made clear what most of us know instinctively, that to live the good life we have to have certain fundamentals, and that in our society we have both the democratic imperative and the financial resources to do so if we so choose.  Ralph, David and Roberta chose to do so and their recognition tonight is richly deserved.

Yet there is a bitter irony that we are honoring these three in the midst of these remarkable financial times.  Like many of us they began their work several decades ago when both private and public institutions red-lined urban neighborhoods, which consequently destroyed the value of those neighborhoods, leaving them with few resources other than the people themselves.  I fear that the same has happened again.

I now look at the map of our beloved city and see red foreclosure dots concentrated in more or less the very same areas that had been most affected by the red-linings of years ago.  I drive through those neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham, or Chatham or Belmont Cragin and see the board ups, the warning labels, the clear sign of vacancy and abandonment.  And we see the similar results to what we saw in the era of the red-lining a whole sale loss of value in our neighborhoods, the loss of sustainable market forces, the loss of family wealth and investments and displacement.

You are all as aware of this as I am.  It is the consequence of public policy decisions that left the most vulnerable as prey to those who will take advantage of them.  And it is the result of a mortgage industry driven solely by an appetite for financial rewards that are ever-increasing and that shatter any notion of community responsibility.  All this means for us practically speaking is that we are starting all over all again. We are faced with neighborhoods that have lost homeowners and landlords, that are struggling to preserve their retail corridors and that are trying to avoid the social ills that come with unemployed youth or broken families.

The reality we face is stark, but the organizers of tonight’s event instructed me to provide in their words an “optimistic view”, particularly in light of the new administration in city hall, a view of how we will move forward.  This is a very tall order, but I will try to comply.  We must first of all be realistic. These are indeed grave times, we must acknowledge that there are no quick, short-term solutions.  We must also admit there are few resources available to us, particularly in the way of public budgets.  Indeed I have come to the conclusion that cities that have been hit hard like Chicago are on their own and must devise their own response to the crisis.

Fortunately we start off in Chicago with a new administration led by a man that will relentlessly drive all of us, and I do mean relentlessly drive all of us to figure out what we must do.  On every front Mayor Emanuel has challenged his cabinet to look at matters differently, to come up with solutions and to implement what we may have formerly thought was not doable.  And to be clear the mayor and I share a common understanding of the foreclosure crisis and the critical need to address it.

So let me then speak to some of our initial ideas about how we might approach this problem. Just as our times reflect an earlier era the solutions may do so as well. We can and must learn from our past as we decide what we should do now.  First we should be mindful that there are advantages that we have today that we did not have in the earlier era, but that emerged from it.  As Gale Cincotta pointed out years ago, we know what the problem really is, in my own words, bringing value back to our neighborhoods.  It is not simply a question of abandoned homes, painful as that is, it is rather the re-establishment of sustainable market forces that will make the neighborhood vital for the residents in the long run.

How do we do this?  In the first place by bringing capital investment back into these micro-markets.  In this respect we have advantages today that actually grew out of the Cincotta era.  There are in place organizations dedicated to investing in our neighborhoods: NHS, my old organization of happy memory LISC, CIC, The Chicago Community Loan Fund, IFF and others and of course we have a solid platform of community development organizations that remain diligently committed to the transformation of their neighborhoods.

I do not place the whole burden on the shoulders of these organizations, rather I say that they are more valuable than ever and we must support them now as  perhaps we have never done so before.  I know that in this regard JCUA’s own Community Ventures program, which has had a remarkable 20 year record in providing capital precisely for the purposes I am suggesting.  Now is the time for it to re-double its efforts and you to re-double your support.

The city has its own role to play, we do have some financial resources, though you may have heard for example Congress recently cut CDBG allocations by 16 percent.  What resources we do have such as TIF or NSP or any of the other acronyms must be strategically invested alongside the other capital organizations I just mentioned.  I don’t mean this in a merely idle sense.  More than ever we must all work together to make smart investments that will leverage each other to re-create the sustainable markets I spoke of earlier.

I am pledged to make this new level of strategic corporation and coordination happen.  But we cannot leave out the private sector.  Somehow we must get the main line financial institutions back to the neighborhood.  But this is probably the toughest part of the equation particularly as unemployment remains stubbornly high.  I have to admit I miss Gale these days and others like Jack Egan, Bishop Brazier or Rabbi Marx, but one way or another, and perhaps through new financial venues we have to induce private capital back into our communities.

Andrew Mooney with the honorees Roberta Nechin, Ralph Brown and David Midgley

Those of you in this room who are in the financial sector, or have influence over it are duty bound to exercise your influence in this regard.  And finally we have to re-energize the citizens of Chicago, that’s really the import of Mayor’s Emanuel first 100 days, to make us believe that our city is worth fighting for.  We cannot suffer another decade of population loss, we have to make hard decisions, get our affairs in order and shine our light to the world, to become as he said to me, “the city on the hill”.

So while there is irony in the presentation of these awards tonight to Ralph, David and Roberta, there is also the hope that they represent, they came out of an era similar to our own today, and have throughout their careers fought the good fight and stayed the course.  They are models to the next generation of what it will take to re-make our city, to bring justice to the people and to create a future in which all citizens of Chicago can duly share.

Thank you very much for the privilege of being with you tonight, it has been a great honor for me to be in your company and to be asked to join you in recognizing my three friends and colleagues.  So now please join me as we present The 2011 Rabbi Robert J. Marx Social Justice Award and welcome to the stage as this year’s recipients Ralph Brown, David Midgley and Roberta Nechin.

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