Chicago’s New Housing Commissioner Brings a Racial Equity Lens to Planning and Policy

Novara talks about adopting a racial-equity framework in government and housing policy, aldermanic prerogative, and moving from an outside advocate to working on the inside of the municipal government.

(Courtesy of the City of Chicago)

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This spring, Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, restored the Department of Housing as its own entity, and appointed Marisa Novara to serve as Housing Commissioner. Novara is a planner and a former housing developer who most recently served as vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, an independent think tank. While there, as Next City has reported, she helped lead a study focused on the costs of segregation in Chicago, and a roadmap for how institutions across the city — governments, businesses, and individuals included — can help push against segregation and the racism that underpins it. Prior to the Metropolitan Planning Council, Novara worked as a project manager at the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a community development group. Here, Novara talks about adopting a racial-equity framework in government and housing policy, aldermanic prerogative, and moving from an outside advocate to working on the inside of the municipal government. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Next City: I know you’ve spent your career working in affordable housing and researching housing segregation and racial equity, and I was hoping you could just tell me a little bit about how you got involved in this kind of work in the first place.

Marisa Novara: This work began for me when I was in grad school, and I was working on a welfare to work program as an internship, and my job really became to help women figure out how to stabilize the rest of the things in their lives in order to be working full-time. The biggest issue that kept coming up for them was the instability of their housing. And so I began to become very interested in tenants’ rights and working on the power imbalance there that comes between a landlord and a tenant and how to help folks take some of that power back, so that they had a quality of life that they deserved. And over time I got very interested in the supply side of that issue, and how to create more of these spaces for people became more and more interesting to me. While I was working I started a program that doesn’t exist anymore but it used to be run out of UIC called the Urban Developers Program and I spent every third Friday and Saturday learning how to do spreadsheets and pro formas, learning how to manage construction and lease-up, so it was a very nuts-and-bolts kind of program to help people learn about affordable housing development. And then I went and did that as my job for several years in Lawndale.

And how did that translate into the work at Metropolitan Planning Council?

After I had been at Lawndale for many years I stepped down to go back to school to study urban planning. That was just something I had been interested in for a long time, and I was really interested in zooming out a bit. When you’re doing housing development you’ve really got your head down, focused on your set of projects and getting them to closing and meeting your deadlines. And it doesn’t allow much time to think or read about how you might want to do things differently. I really just wanted a chance to do that. So I took a moment, a little pause, and completed a degree in urban planning and when I came back from that I was contacted by the Metropolitan Planning Council and that seemed like the right opportunity because I was interested in a bigger geography and a bigger set of issues. So over my time there I was able to really build out a body of work that got at a lot of my interests in looking at housing policy, and really ultimately into how to think about and embrace concepts of racial equity within government.

You’ve written a lot about segregation and housing over the years and also specifically about race and racial attitudes. I read something you wrote saying that “Many white Americans don’t even think of themselves as having a race at all,” and that white people don’t have the language to talk about race. And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how your own understanding of race and segregation developed, or is still developing.

Our first report, as you know, took great pains to figure out how to quantify what segregation costs us, and you might assume that if that was your starting point, when you get to your next point — What do we do about it? — that the corollary might be, here’s how we do integration better. And that’s actually not at all where we ended up in our second report. We had a group of over 100 advisors and then our own team at MPC. And between the staff team and the team of advisors it was an incredibly diverse group of people and what we were able to do was to really listen to people and ultimately what came through clear was that we should not be solving for integration, we should be solving for the root of segregation, which is racism.

That really became the driving force for what our roadmap was focused on. We were very clear to say that the negatives we talk about are not negatives that are endemic to black and brown spaces. What we’re talking about are the negatives of racism and how those play out in those spaces. It became a really, really important distinction to make. If you don’t make that distinction, it’s really easily misunderstood.

Can you just say a bit about what the roadmap included?

The roadmap had two main parts. One was about long-term systemic change and that was where we got into the details of what embracing a racial equity framework looks like. We did look at that across multiple sectors — government, nonprofit, philanthropy and private sector. We were trying to spell out how this could be embraced across all of those sectors. We did take a trip to Seattle to learn about how both the city of Seattle and King County had embraced that work at the government level. We were very interested in how that could play out in government here. As I said, that’s a systemic change, long term, it’s about process, it’s about how we make decisions, and it’s never-ending. And we knew that we would likely need to pair that with some shorter-term things to make both work together. In addition that long-term systemic argument, we also had about two dozen recommendations that we argued could be done over the following two years. And those ranged from education policy to housing policy to transportation, et cetera.

Obviously these issues are U.S. issues, but I wonder how shortcomings around racial equity play out in Chicago specifically, and what you as housing commissioner can do to create a better understanding of race and segregation in Chicago and also a better approach to addressing those problems.

I think one of the things that I’ve been really grateful to learn about the whole concept of racial equity over time is that so much of it happens absent of intent. I think that’s a common misperception, that racism is only about racist people. I think what’s most important, actually, is to look at where we have racially disparate outcomes regardless of the intent of the people who may have enacted a policy or something that caused that outcome. That becomes a really important distinction, especially when you think about government and the way that many good people can end up in systems that perpetuate real negatives for people of color. So as you may know, the Mayor has appointed a chief equity officer, and I am looking forward to the Department of Housing being an early and enthusiastic adopter of that work, and the way that I could see that playing out in this department has to do with how we analyze our budget and the budget decisions that we make. The way that we might be putting potential policy decisions through a racial-equity impact assessment in order to solve for if there may be unintended negatives for populations and communities of color so we are really looking for that on the front end and solving for that on the front end of a new initiative.

It is essential that we have a system that solves for and works to prevent racially disparate outcomes.

How does your perspective change as you shift from being on the outside to inside government?

One of the things I was most struck by when we visited Seattle was how many people who were working within Seattle’s city or county government to enact their racial-equity policies, so many of them had started on the outside pushing government to embrace those policies. And when they ultimately elected a mayor or a county president or both who were sympathetic to those goals, those leaders then said, “Hey, I want you to come in and join us in making those changes.” And many of them took the call, and said, “Alright, now I don’t have to push, and my job now is to operationalize these goals.” And that becomes a really exciting thing to be able to pivot to when you have a leader who, you’re starting from the same page. And in this case Mayor Lightfoot has been very clear about her commitment to equity, transparency, and accountability, so it becomes an incredible opportunity to be able to step in and start from that.

You’ve written a lot about how aldermanic prerogative is a tool that locks segregation in place. Can you say how that works?

In Chicago there’s been a longstanding unwritten understanding about aldermanic prerogative that sort of exists on two different planes. One is that if there is a project that occurs in an Alderman’s ward, whichever stance that alderman takes, all 49 other aldermen go along with their position. That has tended to be how the Council has functioned. The other piece of it is more along the lines that projects don’t come to Council, don’t come up for a vote, unless they are approved by the elected official in their ward. So both of those things have been at play, and it’s something that the mayor spent a fair amount of time on during her campaign, and on her first day in office she issued an executive order to address the administrative parts of that function.

I appreciate the explanation of aldermanic prerogative. How does it exacerbate segregation?

What we’ve seen play out in past years is that we have not had a vision for the city that says every community needs to contribute to the city’s affordable-housing needs. And lacking that as an overriding principle, we’ve allowed for 50 different decision-makers essentially about how that will play out in their ward, which has meant that for many it has meant it doesn’t play out at all in their ward. So we see parts of the city with lots of affordable housing and parts with next to none, which is not an equitable way to approach people having choices about where to live or to stay in their community if it’s getting less and less affordable.

So are you hoping to be part of creating that equitable citywide plan as the housing commissioner?


And how soon is that work going to begin and how long is it going to take?

I don’t know yet. Early days. We’re only a couple weeks into the administration.

Right. I know you’re new to the job. Is there anything you can talk about in terms of specific policies that are on the table at this point?

I think those will be forthcoming, and some within the mayor’s first 100 days, and then some certainly over the course of the first year.

OK. Well, is there anything else you want to talk about in terms of your approach to this position or housing issues in Chicago more generally?

I would say some of the things that are really exciting about this moment. One, we have a mayor who is prioritizing the issue of affordable housing. She spoke about it with great passion in her inaugural address, which was exciting for housing people, and she’s shown a real commitment to these issues. But Chicago, also, just as a backdrop, has a really rich history of community development corporations as a web across the city doing affordable housing and community development and economic development work at the neighborhood level. I worked with that sort of group in North Lawndale. And there’s a really rich web of those organizations across the city that makes Chicago a really special place to do this kind of work in. And I think the combination of that strong infrastructure, a team here at the Department of Housing that is very eager to implement the transparency and accountability that the mayor has talked about, and the drive that the mayor herself is bringing to this issue, just makes it an exciting time and an incredible opportunity for me personally.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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