Rossana Rodríguez: The Politics of “Going to the People First”

She became her neighborhood’s Alderwoman thanks to organized groups of workers, immigrants, and the most vulnerable residents in her area, and by positioning herself against the power of developers. Her affordable housing proposals go hand in hand with violence prevention and public health initiatives.

May 22, 2024

Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Rosanna Rodríguez Sánchez, Alderwoman of the 33rd Ward of the City of Chicago.

The Alderwoman of Chicago’s 33rd Ward, the Puerto Rican native Rossana Rodríguez, knows about displacement firsthand.

When she left Puerto Rico in 2009, she had no reason to leave other than to survive. Originally from the Mariana neighborhood of Humacao, she trained in Theater and dedicated herself to teaching theater classes in the town of Añasco for several years. But, after Act 7 of 2009, enacted to address a fiscal emergency under the administration of Governor Luis Fortuño, the number of students in her classroom went from 15 to 40. Without electric fans and with just the materials that she could buy with her salary of about $1,500 a month, she left discouraged.

It has been 15 years since her disappointments in Añasco. In May 2023, Rossana Rodríguez began her second term as Alderwoman of Ward 33 of Chicago, the city in which she found an opportunity to support herself, doing theater with the Albany Park Theater Project. The area’s population is 81,000 people, of which about 45% are Hispanic.

When she arrived, she brought with her significant experience as a community organizer and activist. She was part of the Frente Estudiantil contra la Privatización, a member of the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation and a militant in the strike against the sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. in 1998.

When looking for ideas for the company’s plays, Rossana Rodríguez wanted to tell stories of characters who were not passive entities, but rather strengthened communities capable of seeking their best well-being together, mainly in the areas of immigration, housing, and education. She soon realized that what she projected on the stage had possibilities in the real world.

In 2015, a teacher at the community’s high school, Tim Meegan, ran for councilor with the support of multiple groups, including socialists like herself.

An alderperson in Chicago could be similar to what a mayor is in Puerto Rico. In his ward, for example, he represents 55,000 people. On that occasion, Meegan fell short of winning the election from the incumbent by just 17 votes, but he paved the way for that possibility.

“What happens if a group of organizers take [occupy] a councilperson’s office?” Rossana Rodríguez said her group asked themselves then. And without stopping imagining possibilities, she moved the question to her island. “And what happens if a group of organizers takes over a mayor’s office and uses mayoral resources to do the work that we do without getting paid, the work we do because we care about our communities?” she said.

“And that was what we did. We said: ‘This is possible. We can do it.’”

In Puerto Rico and Chicago, her interest has been to realize strengthened communities to handle immigration, housing, and education issues.
Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Among those who supported Tim Meegan created an independent political organization (IPO) to mobilize the community before the next elections around the same issues that the Albany Park Theater Project’s plays dealt with — immigration, housing, and education.

And it was she who appeared on the ballot. And she won.

Areas where working and lower-income families live are not exempt from the threat of displacement due to excessive increases in rent prices in Chicago’s 33rd Ward.

“Knocking on doors in a neighborhood like this, where most people live in rented homes, to talk about rent control… People are going to talk to you!’” she laughs. “Make sure you’re going to the people first and talking to them face to face. ‘Nothing can beat that,’ she emphasizes to describe the elections that revalidated her as Councilwoman and that also gave the victory to Brandon Johnson as mayor of Chicago, backed by a coalition of progressive unions and nonprofit organizations.

Rossana Rodríguez says it, but she’s surprised anyway. “The truth is, we aren’t very used to winning.”

The will to seek affordable housing

From City Council, Rodríguez has managed to push local legislation to protect the homes of working families. One of these measures establishes that anyone who wants to buy a building that has multiple housing units to convert it into a single house will have to pay higher taxes. “You don’t want to encourage a place where three families can live, suddenly becoming this building where there’s only one couple.”

The issue of rent control is complex in Illinois, one of the states that bans controlling housing rent prices. Changing that law requires a change to the state constitution and, as such, a majority vote in a referendum.

So, many groups have been involved in the “Lift the ban on rent control” campaign for years. They pressure elected officials to promote the referendum or, at least, exempt the city of Chicago from that ban.

Additionally, Rodríguez seeks to encourage the development of low-cost housing with tax credits, in the city of Chicago and at the state level.

End developer influence

The greatest power council members have is zoning. Changing the use of a building or area in their ward can be done with just one legislative process.

“When you have such great power, there will be interests that are going to want to buy your power,” Rodríguez acknowledges. “Generally, [it’s] developers who buy a property and want you to rezone it so that it’s worth more, so they can sell it more easily or to establish some type of specific business. Many people run for this position just to be able to have that power and give it away, in exchange for other things, to realtors and developers.”

So, when Rodríguez won her seat, she established a community rezoning process, in which the residents themselves decide how their neighborhood will be developed.

To make that possible, Rodríguez says she has made sure her campaign does not receive money from developers or the real estate industry.

“I don’t receive a cent in contributions from developers or the real estate industry. That’s very important. “I don’t take money from anyone who has an interest in the zoning process and there have been people who have sent me money online and I give it back to them.” Her team, she says, monitors donations to her Political Action Committee (PAC). “We find out who the person is. If we don’t identify them, we look at who their father is, who they’re related to, and that’s very important because, historically, Chicago has been a very corrupt city,” she says as the mailman approaches to greet her.

Rodríguez chats with CPI while having avocado toast for breakfast at Dulce de Leche Café, a business owned by an immigrant family in the heart of Albany Park, in Chicago. She always orders the same thing, a dish that wasn’t on the menu, but was added because of how often she ordered it. The mailman who comes in to drop off the mail and other diners greet her with the familiarity of someone who runs into a neighbor.

One of Rossana Rodríguez’s most important projects has been to allocate funds for the construction of low-cost housing.
Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

One of the projects that Rodríguez is proudest of is the construction of the María Elena Sifuentes Apartments, a building with 50 low-cost housing units on the corner of Lawrence Avenue West and Central Park North. The first floor is designated for a childcare center accessible to the families who live there. It is named after one of the community organizers, who died of COVID-19, when the planning for this project began.

Making this project possible required incentivizing low-cost housing developers by granting them tax credits available at the state and federal level and directing part of their TIF funds (Tax Informant Fund) for this, a fund that is created with the money that exceeds an established cap on property tax collections.

Rodríguez says that those funds that she has allocated to infrastructure that meets the needs of their communities are frequently used by councilors and mayors as a discretionary fund to do the opposite: encourage the construction of luxury homes, which leads to the displacement of the area’s residents.

And, because the community’s high school, Roosevelt High School — whose enrollment is mostly made up of Latino students— doesn’t have a field it has never been able to host a soccer game in its 100 years of existence, even though its team is champion in its division. Her administration allocated $5.8 million in TIF funds to build the field.

Stopping violence with prevention rather than policing

Rodríguez is a promoter of a violence prevention proposal that she called “Treatment Not Trauma.” It’s an example of what the slogan and claim to “Defund the Police” could mean in practice, which gained notoriety after the murder committed by police officer Dereck Chauvin, in 2020, against the black citizen George Floyd.

The “Treatment Not Trauma” proposal seeks to use about 300 of the 1,700 positions that have remained vacant in the Police in recent years, despite being budgeted, to hire — instead of police officers — clinical social workers, counselors, and paramedics, and create a mental health crisis response pilot program.

“The money’s there, but it’s not being used. These vacant positions are not providing security for anyone,” Rodríguez said. “We’re trying to reverse the neoliberal trend that has been there, not only in the United States, but everywhere, to privatize everything, to pay crap to people [who are] doing work, as cheap as possible, that’s most important to communities.”

Her proposal is inspired by the CAHOOTS program, implemented more than 30 years ago in the city of Eugene, Oregon, and which has proven to be successful in preventing the Police from killing people who are facing a mental health crisis and in giving them the treatment they need, by changing the focus from criminalization to public health. The idea is that 9-1-1 calls reporting situations that don’t pose an imminent risk to others, such as those involving problematic substance use, a mental health crisis, or involving homeless people, can be attended to by mental health professionals and not by the Police.

It also responds to the movement and more than 10 years of work by Collaborative for Community Wellness to reopen public mental health clinics that were closed under the administrations of Democratic Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. Of the 19 clinics there were, there are now five left.

Rodríguez presented legislation to make it a reality, but it did not pass during the last four-year term. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, a Democrat, however, made the proposal part of his main campaign platform. On October 5, 2023, a working group was established through the approval of a municipal ordinance authored by Rodríguez, tasked with developing the roadmap for the city to expand clinical mental health services, the non-police response to mental health crisis, and raising awareness about available mental health resources. According to the ordinance, the group must submit its written report to the mayor by May 31 of this year.

Without the “Treatment Not Trauma” approach, an intervention with someone in crisis happens wherever they are or ends in a police station or emergency room. “None of those places are equipped to work with someone who’s simply experiencing a moment of deregulation,” that is, who’s deteriorated.

Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez, Alderwoman of the 33rd Ward of the City of Chicago.
Photo by Herminio Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“One of the reasons why I came to do this work is because I want to be able to amplify the demands of social movements. So, when we introduce legislation, we’re sure that we’re introducing it in collaboration with the people who have been fighting for it,” Rodríguez said.

A city that’s a sanctuary

At the beginning of her first term, Rodríguez submitted a bill that became an ordinance to turn Chicago into a sanctuary city for immigrants. After the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to abortion, she believed it was necessary to do the same to protect women and pregnant people who came to the city to exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy, so that local authorities could not cooperate with those of the states where abortion has been prohibited or limited to persecute and prosecute them.

The previous mayor, Lori Lightfoot, made Rodríguez’s proposal an executive order, given the urgency at the time. It then went through the legislative process and is now an ordinance stating that Chicago Police cannot collaborate with any agency in any other state that is trying to prosecute someone for seeking or providing reproductive or gender-affirming care.

One of the lessons she has learned is that “our political positions can succeed if you organize and if you develop the right message.”

For her, coming to power means having access to institutional resources to be able to co-govern with the communities. She uses the analogy of electricity: it’s about connecting a cable to a power source and then throwing an extension cord out the window so the neighbors can connect too.

–What works to mobilize people?

“It works to talk to people about the things that people are interested in,” says Rodríguez.

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