Chicago mayor pulls plans to place migrant shelter site in 11th Ward after stiff opposition from alderman, property owners

CHICAGO — Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Monday he is pulling his proposal to move migrants from downtown to a new shelter in the 11th Ward in the face of stiff opposition from Ald. Nicole Lee, the latest struggle between the administration and an impatient City Council over where to house the asylum seekers.

The change came after the owners of the property said Johnson never informed them of his plans to use the building at 3951 S. Canal St. for a shelter. When the Tribune asked the city about that apparent disconnect, the Department of Family and Support Services released a Monday statement saying the city is “no longer considering” housing migrants there.

“We were surprised to hear news reports of the City’s plan to possibly use our property as a migrant shelter,” Bajaj Medical, the pharmaceutical company that owns the building in the New City neighborhood, wrote in a Sunday statement. “Bajaj Medical has not been contacted by City officials, and has not approved, and does not intend to approve any public use of this property.”

DFSS’s statement acknowledged that was true but clarified that “while City staff had not had conversations with the owner, there were conversations held with the owner’s broker of the property and our vendor.” That broker was ReloShare, which describes itself as a hotel and corporate booking platform in its website.

Representatives with Bajaj Medical, which lists Ram Chakroborty as its registered agent in state business records, did not respond to a request for further comment on Monday.

Lee, 11th, told the Tribune earlier on Sunday that the “pretty shocking” communication breakdown points to a larger pattern of the Johnson administration’s shaky leadership on the migrant crisis.

“What’s going on? What’s going on that nobody was in touch with the owners?” Lee said. “This shines a big light and calls into question how this is being managed, and the people that we have working for the city … That just is mind-blowing to me.”

Reached for comment Monday after the plan was killed, the alderman said she was “pleased and grateful.” But her blistering critiques from the previous day reflected new levels of frustration from the alderman who represents Chinatown and Bridgeport after being appointed by Lightfoot and then winning a full term.

Lee had said the proposal to house migrants in an industrial area surrounded by train tracks elicited environmental and safety concerns. But what most disappointed her was the administration’s explanation that the move was because of the planned closure of a downtown migrant shelter before the Democratic National Convention comes to Chicago in August, she said.

“I was told that the location would need renovations that they needed to get everything done and ready for a July 1 move-in ahead of the DNC,” Lee said Sunday. “It was pretty disturbing. … It seemed that they were down a path, and I’m hoping that we’ve as a city learned a lot of lessons from all of the experiences in the last year with opening shelters.”

The fate of the 40,000-plus asylum-seekers who have made their way to Chicago since 2022 has presented an ongoing conundrum for Johnson, who has struggled with how to move expeditiously to house them in shelters without angering aldermen, who have long been known to be territorial over matters in their wards. Complicating things further is the mayor’s task to showcase Chicago’s strengths — including its reputation as a pro-immigrant city — on a national stage at the DNC.

The city statement highlighted the difficulty Johnson faces trying to balance those interests.

“As part of our commitment to foster transparency and inclusivity, Ald. Lee was given notice early in the process in an effort to gather feedback and information about this potential site,” the DFSS statement said. “This site was under preliminary consideration and a site visit by various City departments had not been conducted.”