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Headline:

Ald. Walter Burnett Softened Stance on Affordable Housing After Cash Flowed

Deck:

Developer Onni Group wanted out of its obligation to include affordable units in its luxury Old Town highrises. Onni paid a Burnett friend more than $417,000 to lobby City Hall, helped sponsor a Burnett fundraiser and pledged $25,000 to a charity run by Burnett’s wife. Some tenants said the alderman abandoned them.

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Lynn Cox recalls the day in 2016 when she and her daughter were told they’d have to vacate their apartment in Old Town’s Atrium Village.

They were swept out to make room for a glittering new luxury highrise Cox simply couldn’t afford.

And Cox, 55, remembers the broken promises made to tenants by their new Canadian landlords and their city council representative, Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, long touted a champion of affordable housing.

The tenants of Atrium Village were told they could remain in their community and move into new, nicer affordable units in the rising glass spires.

“They showed us pictures of how things would be, which was awesome,” Cox said. Burnett “was basically making the statement that we would move into better housing, and it would be better for the community.



“They just plain out blatantly lied,” Cox said. “I just feel done wrong. It’s almost numbing.”

An investigation by the Better Government Association shows how a powerful builder deployed money and clout to recast an entire Chicago neighborhood, while long-standing renters say they were abandoned by their alderman.

Burnett went from publicly criticizing the developer — Onni Group — in 2015 for trying to “wine and dine” its way out of its affordable housing obligations to berating colleagues at a 2018 zoning meeting after they tried to slow the project over tenant allegations of unfair treatment.

“This is my ward,” Burnett pointedly told one alderman who voted against Onni’s plan at the time. “You are stepping too far. Don’t get involved in this.”

Burnett’s accommodations to Onni coincided with an influx of cash from the developer to people close to the alderman, a BGA examination of government records found.

In 2015, Onni hired Mazonne “Maze” Jackson, Burnett’s friend and political consultant, to lobby Burnett, eventually paying Jackson $417,500. Onni also pledged $25,000 over five years to a charity run by Burnett’s wife, Chicago Housing Authority official Darlena Williams-Burnett, and in 2020, donated $11,000 to a political action committee she chairs.

One of Jackson’s first reported actions on Onni’s payroll was to organize a fundraiser for Burnett.

After litigation and years of City Hall meetings, Onni eventually agreed to include the affordable units but grouped nearly 70% into a 1970s brick midrise that still stands in the shadow of three other luxury towers — a practice tenants decried as a throwback to segregation.

Jackson declined to answer questions or agree to be interviewed for this report.

“I have no comments because you’re always spinning the stuff negatively,” Burnett told BGA reporters in a brief interview near his City Hall office. “Write what y’all are going to write; I’m OK with it.”

But more than two weeks later, political consultant Alexandra Sims contacted the BGA for a follow up with Burnett at her offices. Burnett answered some questions about the Atrium Village redevelopment but did not address others and cut the interview short. Neither Burnett nor Sims offered new facts to substantially change this report. 

Burnett said none of the money to Jackson, his own political fund or to his wife had any bearing on any of his public actions.

Burnett recalled the fundraiser at Jackson’s office but said he was unaware it was organized on Onni‘s behalf. “I didn’t know it was for Onni,” Burnett said.

Recounting his childhood in Cabrini-Green, Burnett described his lifelong push for affordable housing as “personal.”

“My thing is, as I tried to explain to [the tenants], I fought to keep the affordable housing in place,” Burnett said. “My thing to them was I can’t do everything — I can only be responsible for so much.”

Onni executives — including President Rossano De Cotiis and Chicago-based Vice President Brian Brodeur — declined requests to be interviewed and did not answer a list of questions about their efforts.

Onni instead sent an email emphasizing its commitment to affordable housing in Chicago and in the Atrium Village redevelopment.

“We have honored the legacy of the community while ensuring an economically viable solution to affordable housing for the next 30 years,” Onni Chief of Staff Duncan Wlodarczak said in the email.

Onni is “one of the only companies to deliver a 20% affordable housing commitment, or 300 units of the total 1,500-unit project, all on-site,” he said.

Tenants, with the support of housing advocates and attorneys at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, filed a 2018 complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to force Onni to adhere to its affordable housing obligations.

Onni quickly settled the case by pledging to include 309 affordable units in the development — though 211 of those units were grouped in the existing midrise.

That settlement came too late for already-scattered tenants such as Cox, who moved to the city’s South Side.

“The redevelopment of our community has gone awry,” wrote 11 “current or displaced” Atrium Village tenants to the former church owners in December 2019.

The BGA review of government records sheds new light on this Chicago corner that was once considered to be a civil rights landmark.

Today, Onni’s luxury towers rise from the corner of Division and Wells streets, dwarfing the remainder of an apartment complex once called Atrium Village.

“You’ve lost the diversity of the neighborhood,” said Pastor Eric Worringer of the Holy Family Lutheran Church, one of four churches that built and owned the original Atrium Village, along with two construction firms.

“The neighborhood is stratified. It’s not diverse. Those are two different things,” Worringer said. “It produces resentment, and it produces frustration.”

A dream deal

The original 309-unit Atrium Village opened in 1978 as a counterpoint to Chicago’s long legacy of racial and economic segregation.

Constructed on a 7-acre swath of vacant lots, it was designed to bridge the mostly white and affluent Gold Coast to the east and the mostly Black and low-income Cabrini-Green public housing complex to the west.

To make Atrium Village mixed income, the four churches used federal subsidies for roughly half the units and market rates for the rest. To ensure diversity, racial quotas were employed — the Department of Justice under then-President Ronald Reagan filed a lawsuit in 1987 challenging Atrium Village’s use of quotas, but the case was settled on the church groups’ terms three years later.

 “If you go to planning school, you’ll read about that case,” said Jon B. Devries, an urban planner who advised the churches and still makes annual tours of the place. “Fortunately, Atrium prevailed.”

Waves of change swept through the Near North Side in the 1990s, as then-Mayor Richard M. Daley redeveloped the neighborhood and began to demolish Cabrini-Green.

Burnett played a role in that contentious history, as many former tenants said the city didn’t follow through on its promises of good jobs and the right to return to their former neighborhood, the BGA reported last year.

Real estate values in the area exploded as the once-predominantly Black neighborhood turned into a mostly white one.

In a November 2011 press release, the Atrium Village church consortium announced it was seeking a new developer. The site was rezoned to allow a much larger complex with 1,500 units.

“Staying true to the original mission, 20% of the apartments in the new complex will be income restricted,” the church leaders said.

The church owners filed a “restrictive covenant,” essentially requiring future developers to spread those low- and moderate-income units throughout the new buildings. The city’s affordable housing ordinance similarly requires low-income units to be equally dispersed throughout projects. The rules were established to curb racial and economic segregation and protect low- and moderate-income residents.

In late August 2014, Onni bought Atrium Village for $50 million, a deal that gave a $1.5 million bonus to each church, according to interviews. Parishioners at LaSalle Street Church were handed $500 checks with a short note of instruction — “Do good in the world” — the Rev. Laura Sumner Truax wrote in her book Love Let Go.

“It was a dream deal,” Devries told the BGA.

“They’re trying to wine and dine me”

Within months, tenants and news reporters began fielding rumors Onni was looking to escape its affordable housing commitment.

Amid the controversy, Burnett announced publicly he would hold Onni to its obligation, the news site DNAinfo reported in November 2015. 

“They’re trying to get out of it,” Burnett said. “It’s not right. They’re trying to wine and dine me. I’m like, ‘Nah, just do the affordable housing.’”

A few weeks earlier, records show, Onni penned a lucrative lobbying contract with Jackson, Burnett’s longtime friend and political consultant.

Before he was hired by Onni, Jackson previously worked as a consultant for leading Illinois political figures of both parties. His lobbying partners have included Michael Noonan, a former staffer to then-Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Victor Reyes, a City Hall patronage boss under then-Mayor Daley.

Records show Jackson, in addition to being a lobbyist, has formed at least a dozen companies, including a parking valet service and a construction firm. As a radio personality, Jackson has highlighted issues important to the Black community and coined the catchphrase: “What’s in it for the Black people?”

Jackson outlined his mission for Onni in a six-page presentation filed as part of the company’s required lobbying disclosures. He said he could help the company pay fees in lieu of adding units for low-income tenants.

“The Onni Group would prefer not to build the affordable housing units,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson also identified the primary target of his lobbying as Burnett, “who is Chicago’s top affordable housing advocate, is currently opposed to the project. … The Onni Group has had a challenge getting the support of the alderman for the Atrium Village project.”

Jackson’s lobbying firm — The Intelligence Group — would “provide the Onni Group with the information, strategy and tactics necessary to complete its Chicago-based projects in the most efficient manner possible.”

Jackson has called Burnett a close friend and credited the alderman with getting him into politics. Both men worked for the organization of Secretary of State Jesse White, who has lived in the Atrium Village midrise for decades.

Jackson and Burnett bonded in part because they were accepted by political leaders after criminal convictions, Jackson told RollingOut.com. Jackson pleaded guilty to misdemeaners in three cases, including two felony charges in Champaign County, records show, and Burnett has talked about his two-year prison stint for his role in a Kankakee armed bank robbery.

Jackson helped Burnett market a rap album and Burnett supported Jackson’s unsuccessful run for aldermanic office, their interviews show.

That friendship also resulted in business for Jackson. 

Between 2001 and December 2015, Burnett’s political funds paid Jackson and his companies $28,048 for work on his campaigns, according to state campaign disclosures.

Records show the last check the Friends of Walter Burnett Jr. committee wrote to Jackson came in November 2015 for $200. That was two months after Onni signed an agreement to pay Jackson $60,000 per year, public city lobbying reports show. The contract increased to $78,000 in 2020 and continues to this day, records show.

In June 2016, among his first reported projects for his new lobbying client, Jackson hosted a political fundraiser for Burnett, spending $1,460.97 for “table chair linen rental” and “event catering,” city lobbying records show.

Burnett told the BGA he didn’t know how Onni selected Jackson to be its lobbyist.

“I didn’t talk to Onni; he did that on his own,” Burnett said. “I think he said they hired him because they wanted to have a relationship with me because they know I was mad about affordable housing, and nobody wants to be on the bad side of the alderman.”

Burnett added “I think [Jackson] saw an opportunity, and I guess Onni bit, but that’s between him and Onni.”

Throughout 2016, Burnett and Onni representatives appeared at tenant meetings. One poster for a tenant town hall meeting quoted Burnett: “I pray and hope that this continues to be holy ground as a development that helps people in our community from all walks of life.”

“My main thing was trying to keep the development affordable,” Burnett told tenants at one meeting, according to DNAinfo. “I was fighting for the affordable folks, and that’s what I try to do all the time.”

“An ARO runner this morning!!!”

While Onni and Burnett were navigating contentious meetings with Atrium Village tenants, city officials were trying to determine in August 2016 whether Onni had attempted to “sidestep” affordable housing requirements by using a slightly different address to apply for a key permit, according to emails reviewed by the BGA.

 “It is an obvious attempt by the developer to sidestep their obligation,” veteran City Hall planning coordinator Erik Glass wrote colleagues in an Aug. 31, 2016, email. “I will be damned if I let that go,” he said in another email that day.

Then-City Hall project manager Kara Breems notified colleagues with an email citing the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, or ARO.

She wrote: “We have an ARO runner this morning!!!”

Then-housing commissioner David Reifman reached out to Burnett for a phone call, the emails show.

Reifman, Glass and Breems did not respond to BGA interview requests.

Two current top city housing officials — both of whom spoke on the condition they not be identified — said Onni ultimately complied, and they don’t think the company was trying to sidestep its obligations at the time.

By fall 2016, Onni was proposing a new plan to meet its affordable housing obligations: It would put a majority of the low- and moderate-income units in the aging midrise building, an idea that some city officials said defied the ARO because it did not equally disperse the low-income tenants but clustered them.

“Now, the developer is proposing to put the majority of units in one existing midrise building, which earlier plans had proposed to demolish. The building would then be 100% affordable,” Breems wrote in an Oct. 7, 2016, email to colleagues. “Concentrating all the units in one building runs counter to city policy.”

Amid a flurry of news media reports, Burnett said Onni acted responsibly by offering to pay tenants’ moving expenses, return their security deposits, and help them look for a new place to live, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in December 2016.

In April 2017, Burnett wrote a letter to the city zoning administrator expressing support for Onni’s plan. “I am writing to express my support for the proposed minor changes,” Burnett wrote.

Burnett told the BGA he embraced Onni’s plan to condense the affordable units into the midrise “because they committed to keeping the Atrium building. It helped the affordable people and the non affordable people.”

Saying Onni treated them like “bald-headed stepchildren,” tenants, along with Shriver Center attorneys, filed their federal fair housing complaint in 2018.

“Onni Group and the city of Chicago are segregating and isolating the vast majority of affordable housing, predominantly minority renters, into the one remaining, aging building,” the complaint alleged.

As the fair housing complaint was pending, Onni made its $25,000 pledge in August 2018 to the charity run by Williams-Burnett, Burnett’s wife.

The nonprofit brought in $68,503 that year to support schoolchildren. Williams-Burnett declined to comment. Burnett posted a video showing the oversized mock check Onni handed him on his YouTube channel, WBurnett27.

Onni settled the fair housing complaint in September 2018 and has refurbished the original Atrium Village midrise building, scraping and repainting the outer balconies and creating a large day care center and comfortable TV lounge inside, the BGA found from site visits, interviews and public records.

“It looks way better than I have ever seen it,” Truax wrote in a newsletter after a December 2018 tour. But even with “a new gym [and] spiffy furniture,” Truax added, “there is a feeling of ‘separate but equal’ vibe to it.”

That month, City Council members, including Zoning Committee Chair Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, tried to force Onni to pause development or add more affordable housing in the luxury towers.

Burnett excoriated Tunney at the December 2018 public hearing.

“I know you are running for office, but don’t keep playing with my ward,” Burnett told Tunney. “This is my ward. You are stepping too far. Don’t get involved in this.”

The redevelopment of Atrium Village embittered some tenants but spurred new revisions to Chicago’s ARO, housing advocates told the BGA. 

“The redevelopment of Atrium Village was, I think, one of the catalysts for the recognition that we needed to revamp the Affordable Requirements Ordinance and actually move it to be a program that creates affordable housing units,” said Shriver Center staff attorney Emily Coffey.

A whiter, wealthier neighborhood

Burnett and Onni play outsized roles in Chicago affordable housing.

No other City Council member approaches Burnett’s impact on affordable housing construction in Chicago, the BGA analysis found. Thirty percent of the 19,400 new units subject to the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance since 2016 were built in Burnett’s ward, records show.

Burnett’s affordable housing victories include 59 on-site affordable units in the 586-unit development at 845 W. Madison Ave.

Yet overall, developers in Burnett’s ward have produced only 8% of their ARO-subject units as on-site affordable housing, the BGA found.

That puts Burnett in the middle of the pack among the 28 city council members with developments subject to the ordinance during that period.

For its part, Onni is among Chicago’s leading developers of highrise apartments subject to the ARO, the BGA found.

Of the 12 largest developments subject to the ARO since 2016, Onni constructed five of the towers with more than 2,000 units, the BGA found in an analysis of 218 ARO-subject developments during the last six years. No other developer came close to Onni’s record.

Onni told the BGA its new Atrium Village redesign is “one of the most innovative developments in the provision of affordable housing in Chicago.”

Onni also provided entry-level jobs to members of the four original congregations, one nearby church pastor told the BGA.

And Onni has poured more than $1 billion into rental, office and hotel projects around the loop, Crain’s Chicago Business reported in March. 

In two luxury developments in Ald. Brendan Reilly’s 42nd Ward — 369 W. Grand Ave. and 352 N. Union Ave. — Onni constructed 729 units and set aside only 18 as affordable, the BGA found. Onni paid the city $9.9 million in fees in lieu of building on-site affordable units in those two projects, the BGA found.

Onni also donated $20,800 to Reilly’s campaign accounts. Reilly did not respond to a request for comment.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a December press release touted the “unprecedented investments for affordable housing creation and preservation” since she took office in 2019. Burnett co-chaired the task force that oversaw those revisions to the ordinance.

The BGA found the citywide production of on-site affordable units in new developments peaked at 283 in 2017 and then decreased steadily to 213 units in 2020. The number of affordable units produced on-site increased to 252 last year, according to Chicago Department of Housing records.

Census data shows the neighborhood surrounding the Atrium Village redevelopment got whiter and wealthier from 2010 to 2020, a trend amplified by the redevelopment of Cabrini-Green.

The Black population in that census tract decreased from 40% to 25% during that decade. And the median household income soared from $35,139 in 2010 to $89,968 in 2020.

Among those who left the neighborhood was Cox.

“I loved that spot,” she told the BGA.

With her daughter finishing a master’s degree downstate, Cox said she is eyeing retirement — to a state south of Illinois where she plans to grow Christmas trees.

She said she’s not bitter today about the changes to her former community, but Chicago’s affordable housing programs could do more to protect low- and moderate-income tenants.

“Change is inevitable,” Cox said. But “the way it occurs doesn’t have to cause pain in the community.”

“It wasn’t just me, you know. Pricing people out is sad.”

BGA investigative reporter Casey Toner contributed to this article.

(This story has been edited to correct information regarding Mazonne Jackson's conviction history. Although he was charged with felonies in two separate cases, both cases were resolved after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. We regret the error.)

This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.

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