Better Government Association is investigating property developer Ald. Walter Burnett

To create mixed income for Atrium Village, the four churches used federal grants for about half of the units and market rates for the remainder. To ensure diversity, racial quotas were used – the Justice Department under then-President Ronald Reagan filed a lawsuit in 1987 challenging Atrium Village’s use of quotas, but the case was dismissed. colonized under religious groups three years later.

“If you go to city planning school, you’ll read this case,” said Jon B. Devries, a city planner who has advised 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 tearing down Cabrini-Green.

Burnett played a part in this controversial story, as many former tenants said the city failed to deliver on its promises of good jobs and the right to return to their old neighborhoods, the BGA reported last year.

Real estate values ​​in the area have soared as the once predominantly black neighborhood has transformed into a predominantly white neighborhood.

In November 2011 Press release, the Atrium Village church consortium has announced that it is looking for a new developer. The site has been rezoned to allow for a much larger complex with 1,500 units.

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

The church owners filed a “restrictive covenant,” essentially forcing future developers to distribute these low- and moderate-income units in new buildings. The city’s Affordable Housing Ordinance also requires low-income housing to be evenly distributed across projects. The rules were established to combat racial and economic segregation and protect low- and middle-income residents.

In late August 2014, Onni bought Atrium Village for $50 million, a deal that gave each church a $1.5 million bonus, according to interviews. Parishioners at the LaSalle Street Church received checks for $500 with a short note of instruction – “Do good in the world” – Reverend Laura Sumner Truax wrote in her book. like to let go.

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

“They’re trying to make me wine and dine me”

Within months, tenants and reporters began spreading rumors that Onni was looking to escape his affordable housing commitment.

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

“They’re trying to get through it,” Burnett said. “That’s not true. They’re trying to drink me and dine me. I’m like, ‘No, just do the affordable housing.’ »

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Weeks earlier, records show, Onni had signed a lucrative lobbying contract with Jackson, Burnett’s longtime friend and political consultant.

Prior to being hired by Onni, Jackson previously worked as a consultant to top Illinois political figures from both parties. His lobbying partners have included Michael Noonan, a former staffer of then-Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Victor Reyes, a patron of the town hall patronage under then-Mayor Daley.

Records show that Jackson, in addition to being a lobbyist, formed at least a dozen businesses, including a valet parking service and a construction company. As a radio personality, Jackson highlighted important issues for the black community and coined the catchphrase, “What’s in it for 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 the fees instead of adding units for low-income tenants.

“The Onni Group would rather not build affordable housing,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson also identified the main target of his lobbying as Burnett, “who is the leading advocate for affordable housing in Chicago, is currently opposed to the project. … The Onni group struggled to get the alderman’s support 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 carry out its Chicago-based projects in the most efficient manner possible”.

Jackson 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 for decades.

Jackson and Burnett bonded in part because they were accepted by political leaders after being convicted of crimes, Jackson told Jackson had two cases in Champaign County, BGA discovered, and Burnet spoke about his two-year stint in prison for his role in a Kankakee armed bank robbery.

Jackson helped Burnett market a rap album, and Burnett supported Jackson’s unsuccessful bid for alderman, their interviews show.

This 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 arrived in November 2015 for $200. That was two months after Onni signed a deal to pay Jackson $60,000 a year, according to public city lobbying reports. The contract grew 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 on “table linen rentals” and “event catering,” according to the city’s lobbying records.

Burnett told the BGA he doesn’t know how Onni chose Jackson to be his lobbyist.

“I haven’t spoken to Onni; he did it on his own,” Burnett said. “I think he said they hired him because they wanted to have a relationship with me because they knew I was crazy about affordable housing, and nobody wants to be on the wrong side of it. alderman.”

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

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

“My main goal was to try to keep the development affordable,” Burnett told tenants in a meeting, according to DNA Info. “I was fighting for affordable people, and that’s what I try to do all the time.”

“An ARO runner this morning!!!”

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

“This is a clear attempt by the developer to shirk their obligation,” City Hall Planning Coordinator Erik Glass wrote to colleagues in a 31 email. August 2016. “I’ll be damned if I give up,” he said in another email that day.

Kara Breems, then City Hall’s project manager, notified her 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, according to the emails.

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

Two current senior city housing officials – both of whom spoke on the condition of not being identified – said Onni eventually complied and they did not believe the company was trying to circumvent its obligations under the law. ‘era.

In the fall of 2016, Onni proposed a new plan to meet its affordable housing obligations: it would place the majority of low- and moderate-income housing in the aging mid-rise building, an idea that some city officials say the city, challenged the ARO because it did. not evenly distribute low-income tenants, but grouped them together.

“Now the developer is proposing to put the majority of the units in an existing mid-rise building, which previous plans had proposed to demolish. The building would then be 100% affordable,” Breems wrote in an October 7, 2016 email. to his colleagues, “Concentrating all units in one building is against city policy.”

In the middle of a gust news media reportsBurnett said Onni acted responsibly by offering to pay tenants’ moving costs, 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’s zoning administrator expressing support for Onni’s plan. “I am writing to express my support for the proposed minor edits,” Burnett wrote.

Burnett told the BGA that he embraced Onni’s plan to condense affordable units into the mid-rise “because they were committed to keeping the Atrium building. It helped affordable people and unaffordable people .

To say that Onni treated them like “bald stepchildrenthe tenants, along with attorneys for the Shriver Center, filed their federal fair housing complaint in 2018.

“The Onni Group and the City of Chicago are separating and isolating the vast majority of affordable housing, primarily minority tenants, in the only remaining aging building,” the complaint alleged.

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

The non-profit organization raised $68,503 that year to support school children. Williams-Burnett declined to comment. Burnet posted a video showing the fake oversized check Onni gave him on his YouTube channel, WBurnett27.

Andrew B. Reiter