Johnson reverses course on moving migrants from downtown to proposed shelter in 11th Ward after stiff opposition from alderman, property owners

Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Monday he is pulling his proposal to move migrants from downtown to a new shelter in the South Side 11th Ward before the Democratic National Convention in the face of stiff opposition from the local alderman and the building’s owners, the latest setback in the administration’s attempts to house 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” doing so.

“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, said 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’ 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.”

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.

Ald. Nicole 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, Lee 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 Mayor Lori 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 41,000-plus asylum-seekers who have arrived in Chicago since 2022 has been an ongoing quandary for Johnson, who has struggled with how to move expeditiously to house them in shelters without angering the city’s 50 aldermen, a role that comes with being territorial over ward matters. Attempts to place asylum-seekers in sites from the Far Northwest Side to Roseland have run into a seemingly never-ending cascade of grumbles from council members across the political spectrum.

One of the most high-profile conflicts concerned Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th, a freshman progressive who ultimately prevailed in seeing a proposed winterized base camp for 2,000 migrants scrapped after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration yanked funding away due to environmental concerns. Other aldermen have been less successful.

Lee is more of a political moderate within the City Council and endorsed Johnson’s runoff opponent, Paul Vallas, after her chosen candidate, Lightfoot, was knocked out of the running. However, she has voted with Johnson to give him some slim City Council wins: She backed the Gaza cease-fire resolution that prevailed in a tie-breaker vote cast by the mayor and Johnson’s recent move to allocate another $70 million in city funds to address the migrant crisis.

On Sunday, the alderman signaled those days may be over: “The city has been spending an inordinate amount of money in response to this. … I see what we’re getting in return. We’re paying Ritz-Carlton rates for Motel Six service.”

Johnson’s team has been vexed by the aldermanic pushback, with his chief of staff, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, often stressing in reporter briefings that the city is in crisis mode and council members need to step up and meet the administration halfway.

The DFSS statement on the shelved 11th Ward proposal on Monday said, “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. This site was under preliminary consideration and a site visit by various City departments had not been conducted.”

Bajaj Medical has contributed $1,001 to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and $2,800 to the 11th Ward Democrats, according to state campaign finance records.

Complicating the matter further still 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. Johnson has long pointed to the way his own election energized young progressives and reflected the party’s leftward shift as proof Chicago is the perfect place to celebrate President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign.

Republicans, though, have highlighted past scenes of migrant families sleeping outside Chicago police stations to make the case Biden is weak on immigration, and the nation’s eyes will be on the United Center as well as the downtown business district during the affair. The latter area is home to the Standard Club shelter, 320 S. Plymouth Court, where over 900 migrants live. Johnson wanted to move the Standard Club residents to the Canal Street building, according to Lee.

So far, a sudden escalation of migrant buses sent north from Texas has not repeated itself, but few within Chicago government are counting on that reprieve to last as the Democratic Party event draws near.

Johnson, meanwhile, dodged questions Monday on the botched 11th Ward shelter plans by blaming Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for sending migrant buses to Chicago.

“We have to be prepared for things that we don’t have control of, one of which is the behavior of the governor of Texas,” the mayor told reporters before making a reference to the recent rap beef between artists Kendrick Lamar and Drake. “Now, I’m not quite sure if he’s auditioning to come up with a diss track for the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago, but the fact of the matter is, his behavior has caused chaos around this country.”

Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan contributed.