Johnson unveils Chicago’s first chief homelessness officer, takes more shots at ‘wicked’ adversaries of Bring Chicago Home

Mayor Brandon Johnson debuted his pick for Chicago’s first chief homelessness officer during a Monday news conference that also saw him stand firm against the real estate lobby and other political adversaries over his progressive agenda.

Sendy Soto, a former senior director at the Chicago Community Trust and ex-managing deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Housing, will helm the post starting next week, the mayor’s office announced. Soto’s chief task will be to develop a five-year plan on addressing the city’s homelessness crisis.

In introducing Soto at the grand opening of the Lawson House’s newly renovated affordable housing units in the Gold Coast, the mayor first pushed back on characterizations of his reaction to the Bring Chicago Home referendum’s loss as “defiant.”

The mayor earlier last month brushed aside a looming defeat of the proposed tax hike to fund homelessness services by blaming its “cowardly” opponents and declaring, “I’m still here, still standing. And I will be punching back.”

“If my advocacy is defiant, what does that say about the systems who wish to keep people without dignity and unhoused? I call it wicked,” Johnson said Monday. “And so that’s why we are demonstrating in the first 10 months of my administration that we are committed to ending homelessness. … I had an older brother who had untreated trauma and died addicted and unhoused. So pardon me for wanting to be a bridge.”

Then Johnson turned to Soto and quipped, “She’s smiling now but I’m about to read her job description. See how she feels after.”

In her first public comments since being appointed, Soto sought to underline the importance of collaboration in her new role, kicking off her remarks with, “Now you have to clap for yourselves, because we’re gonna do this together.”

“As a lifelong Chicagoan who has experienced housing insecurity, I understand firsthand the challenges zero-to-low income individuals face in overcoming systemic barriers,” Soto said. “Furthermore, as someone who has sought stable housing at the age of 18 to escape violence, I also know that housing needs are complex.”

The new homelessness czar said her priorities will include “addressing the harms of systemic racism” as well as working with the state of Illinois to establish a “coordinated Crisis Response System for housing instability.” On the topic of her five-year plan, Soto stressed that tackling the “root causes” of homelessness will take the forefront.

“My ask to each of you is simple: Share your ideas and hold me accountable,” Soto said. “It is an immense honor to undertake this vital role on your behalf, and gaining and keeping your trust are important to me.”

However, Johnson Monday declined to opine about a recent statement from the City Council’s Progressive Caucus that “current distrust” in city government was what killed the Bring Chicago Home measure and its promised $100 million revenue fund to tackle homelessness.

Following the referendum’s defeat, the aldermanic bloc chaired by Johnson ally Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, had released a statement saying, “Voters who opposed the referendum told us their vote represented their current distrust, frustration, and disappointment with city government.” The progressives continued, “Collectively, city leaders can and must do better to earn and maintain our constituents’ trust.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s worth speculating why voters decided to vote the way they did,” Johnson said when asked about that assessment. “Look, I’ll leave that to pundits. What I said is that voter turnout was extremely low and it’s incumbent upon all of us to engage the electorate on a variety of issues. … As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m interested in working with anyone and everyone who is committed to preventing and ending homelessness. Anything short of that, then I don’t know what purpose they may have.”

The program at the Lawson House focused on the historic 24-story building’s transformation from 583 single-room occupancy units into 406 apartment units with private kitchens and bathrooms, 322 of which will have rental subsidies.

In defending his vision to combat homelessness, the mayor again touted his $1.25 billion bond plan to fund affordable housing and economic development. Then he reminded reporters of the historical political background that precipitated the Bring Chicago Home referendum.

In the mid-1990s, Cook County Board President John Stroger had sought and failed to raise the county’s real estate transfer tax. The backlash from the real estate industry prompted the Republican-controlled state government to pass a law in 1997 prohibiting home-rule municipal governments from increasing the real estate transfer tax without voter approval by referendum.

That was why ahead of the 2024 election, Bring Chicago Home had to decide between either trying to change state law or placing the question on the ballot.

“Let me just name it, OK. I am not the first Black man executive to push for revenue to address this crisis,” Johnson said. “The attempt was to destroy board President John Stroger in 1996. And those same forces do not want to see us address this issue in 2024. So if anybody is defiant, it’s them.”