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I joined the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing in 1999, just after Julia Stasch, then Commissioner of the Department of Housing (now Interim President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), had put the final touches on the City’s second five-year plan for affordable housing. Largely due to Julia’s leadership, this iteration of the City’s plan was produced in collaboration with affordable housing advocates and the development community. This collaborative approach stood in contrast to the contentious process that produced Chicago’s affordable housing plan six years earlier.

The “Affordable Housing and Community Jobs” ordinance of 1993, which required the City of Chicago to produce an affordable housing plan, was the result of considerable work led by Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (now President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners) and the Chicago Rehab Network, a network of community development organizations and nonprofit affordable housing developers. With support from local foundations, the Chicago Rehab Network mobilized a campaign over several years that pressed the City to make long-term commitments of resources—federal, state, and local—to the development and preservation of affordable housing for Chicago’s neediest residents.

Armed with “The Chicago Affordable Housing Fact Book: Visions for Change,” community organizers were positioned in neighborhoods across the city to mobilize support. With data from a variety of local and federal sources, including the newly released 1990 census, the Fact Book served as the evidence and guidebook for policy change. One of its features was a housing misery index. The index ranked the 77 community areas on indicators such as “communities with less than $5 million invested by conventional lenders,” “communities that lost 10 percent or more of their total units between 1980 and 1990,” and “communities where at least 10 percent of children under age 5 suffer from lead poisoning.”[1] These indicators were also broken down for all 50 aldermanic wards. Two of the Fact Book’s most impressive charts compared Chicago’s spending on affordable housing with that in other U.S. cities. In 1989, Chicago spent $0.66 per capita for low-cost housing compared with $101.89 per capita in New York City.

This huge gap between Chicago and New York motivated a campaign that used data to demand increased local resources for affordable housing. The resulting ordinance required the city to create five-year estimates for affordable housing commitments and submit quarterly progress reports with accompanying testimony to the City Council’s Housing and Real Estate committee. A sample for these reports was even attached to the ordinance. In the end, the City Council approved a five-year commitment of more than $500 million that was estimated to produce and preserve just over 36,000 units of affordable housing.

In my role as Assistant Commissioner for Program, Policy and Resource Development, I was charged with creating the quarterly reports for the second five-year plan. Notwithstanding the collaborative process that led to the plan, assembling these reports felt like a great imposition. At the time, the reports served only to fulfill a regulatory requirement. Each quarter I cajoled colleagues to provide data. If I was lucky, they submitted the data in an Excel spreadsheet, but there were still a few program managers who tracked every small loan or grant using paper and pencil. My staff and I would pull all these disparate pieces together into one unified report that tracked the funding sources (CDBG, HOME, GO Bonds, LIHTC, etc.), project type (rental housing, improvements, affordable mortgages, etc.), who was served (income and ethnicity), and the location. The resource was painstaking to produce, but even worse, it was woefully underused.

Soon after I arrived at the department, Julia moved over to become Mayor Daley’s Chief of Staff, and Jack Markowski replaced her as commissioner in 1999. A seasoned public servant, Jack transformed the data-rich quarterly reports from a regulatory requirement into a management tool. He held monthly “stat” meetings to hold program managers accountable. As a result, the data started to improve and so did the outcomes. These stat meetings marked the advent of data-driven policymaking and program management for affordable housing investments in the City of Chicago. In fact, the City recently completed its fifth five-year housing plan.

At the same time, the Chicago Rehab Network continues to push from the outside. Although the network and the City have collaborated over the years, they are not always on the same page about the City’s progress toward meeting its goals, even though they use the same data. The network continues to produce its own review of the quarterly reports and to testify before City Council.

The lesson I take from this experience is that although data can be powerful in fortifying the “outside game,” that is, the pressure from advocates or other community stakeholders necessary to spur major policy change, it is not sufficient to sustain that change. An “inside game,” driven by those within government who know how to leverage bureaucratic processes, is also needed to ensure that data are used effectively and systematically to hold the public sector accountable.

The challenge is that the quality, utility, and use of data depend on its currency with leadership and managers. Investing in local government capacity to create, manage, and analyze its own data may well be a necessary condition to significantly improve housing and community development policy. But to get the most out of data, changes to organizational culture are also needed. Strong internal leadership that helps staff at all levels recognize the value of data for decision making will help ensure that programs and policies remain data-driven over the long term. It is also important that mayors, city councils, and federal and state funding agencies reward public officials who use data and information to advance the public good.

Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank Kevin Jackson, Rachel Johnston, Jack Markowski, and Stacie Young for providing important source materials and background on the Affordable Housing and Community Jobs Campaign and Ordinance and the subsequent five-year plans.

[1]   Chicago Rehab Network, “The Chicago Affordable Housing Fact Book: Visions for Change.”(Chicago Rehab Network, 1993), pp., 12–13.