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Maria Hadden, Newly Elected Alderwoman of the 49th Ward


 

I had never met Maria Hadden before she graciously agreed to let me interview her for our Newsletter. I went to her office on Morse Avenue for a 4 o’clock appointment on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in mid-March. I figured I’d be lucky to get 45 minutes or an hour of her time. After all, she’s got a lot on her plate. Maria won the general election for 49th Ward Alderman on February 26 with over 63% of the popular vote. The unambiguous result allowed her to skip over the run-offs in April. But she is not resting on her laurels. She has a long to-do list as she prepares for her new role. I figured some strange guy from a property-owner organization would not rank very high on her priority list.

The truth is, I do not rank very high on her priority list. But you would not have known it from the warm reception she gave me, or the two hours we ended up spending together, talking about a wide range of issues. Had it not been for another obligation at 6 p.m., Maria might have let me stay even longer. I was honestly sorry to wrap it up.

It is fair to say that I approached the interview with more than a little trepidation.

This was pretty much the opposite of what I had expected when I walked into her office. It is fair to say that I approached the interview with more than a little trepidation. Going in, I knew that Maria’s platform and RPBG’s objectives do not always match up very well. On some issues, notably rent control, we are indeed far, far apart.

But, if first impressions are worth anything, Maria does not strike me as someone who is eager to pick a fight. She has strong opinions, certainly, and a set of values and beliefs that are central to her sense of mission and purpose. But I found her to be incredibly warm and personable. It took her all of about two minutes to put me at ease. Throughout our conversation, she seemed as interested in our views as I was in hers.

I got the strong sense that Maria is genuine in her desire to reach out to the entire Rogers Park community and to build consensus wherever possible. Our conversation was just that – a real back and forth, without a trace of acrimony or tension. Maria was respectful of our views, and both thoughtful and articulate about hers.

If my experience is any indication, I think we might all be in for a pleasant surprise. Maria clearly has a deep affection for Rogers Park and Chicago. So do we. That gives us a place to start, even if we will not always get to the same conclusions or settle on the same solutions.

If we are willing to talk and listen, then I think our relationship with our new Alderwoman can be both satisfying and productive.

If our goal is to change minds, we will almost certainly come away disappointed. But if we are willing to talk and listen, then I think our relationship with our new Alderwoman can be both satisfying and productive. I found Maria to be the opposite of doctrinaire. She was open, thoughtful, respectful and genuinely interested in perspectives other than her own. Here is a brief summary of what I learned. I am confident we will all have more opportunities to get to know Maria and talk about the issues that matter to us all.

Background

Maria grew up in Columbus, Ohio and got her undergraduate degree in International Peace and Conflict Studies at Ohio State University, graduating in 2002. In the summer of 2003, Maria got a job as a Vista Fund Development Coordinator at the Youth Conservation Corps in Waukegan. This job brought her to the Chicago region. She has lived here ever since.

To make a long story short, Maria’s experience as a condominium owner did not go as planned.

The Vista job ended a little over a year later. When it was done, Maria moved to Rogers Park. With the exception of a short stint in Humboldt Park and another one in Logan Square, Rogers Park has been Maria’s home since moving here in 2004.

Maria had several jobs after moving to Chicago, first with AT&T as a Business Account Executive (2004-2010), then with The Participatory Budgeting Project (2010-2018), and most recently as Executive Director of Our City Our Voice (2018 to the present).

Perhaps more interesting than where she worked was what she experienced during her 15 years in Chicago. Like many young professionals, Maria decided home ownership would be a logical next step. She and her former partner decided to take the plunge and buy a condominium in a building that was still under renovation. They were one of the first people to buy in the still-unfinished building. The price seemed reasonable – in the $200-plus range, the going rate for a nice two-bedroom, two-bath unit in East Rogers Park at that time. The year was 2007.

She tried to negotiate a short sale of her own unit, but ultimately lost it and all her equity when her lender foreclosed.

To make a long story short, Maria’s experience as a condominium owner did not go as planned. Not long after she closed on her unit, the market began to get rocky. The developer became difficult to reach before he fled the country entirely, returning to his native Bosnia with a large amount of cash that was supposed to have been used for construction but that somehow ended up in a foreign bank account. He has never returned to the United States.

Maria’s leadership qualities soon began to shine. She organized her fellow condominium owners and did her best to right the ship. She nearly succeeded. The condo association tried, but was unable, to secure new financing to complete the building. As a result, the existing lender foreclosed on the mortgage. After three years of struggle, this was a blow that Maria and many of her fellow condo owners were unable to overcome. She tried to negotiate a short sale of her own unit, but ultimately lost it and all her equity when her lender foreclosed.

This experience was life-changing. It was a hard lesson on the impact of economic cycles, and an unfiltered view of the hardship of losing your home, not just for Maria but for many other Rogers Parkers as well. The deep recession cut into her AT&T salary; her partner lost her job entirely. Despite these travails, Maria decided to go back to school even while struggling economically and holding onto her job at AT&T.

By 2010, Maria decided it was time for a change. She graduated from DePaul University that year with a Master’s Degree in International Public Service Management. She had already gotten involved in the Participatory Budgeting process in the 49th Ward. Maria used the new degree and political experience to co-found a new organization – The Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization that facilitated participatory budgeting in cities around the country.

Over the next eight years, Maria got more and more involved in the politics of Rogers Park and deepened her understanding of the government process with her work in participatory budgeting. She also found a new partner and a new home in a Coop Building, not far from her old condo. Maria told me she was and is much happier in the coop where residents own a single building in a shared arrangement. She feels that this housing model fosters a greater sense of community, and makes residents work together since everyone is vested in the building’s success.

This experience was life-changing.

In 2017, Maria decided to run for Alderman, convinced that her vision for the future of Rogers Park was more compelling to the average Rogers Parker than that of long-time Alderman, Joe Moore. Her 63.8% margin of victory is an indication that she was right. Her current position as Executive Director of Our City Our Voice will come to an end just prior to being sworn into office as Alderwoman of the 49th Ward on Monday, May 20th.

First Steps

Maria plans to use the next several months doing a lot of outreach and listening. She says she has three primary goals just before, and right after, she takes office:

Neighborhood Needs Assessment – First on Maria’s list is outreach to the many neighborhood organizations and groups active in Rogers Park. Maria would like to do a “full physical assessment” of the Ward and begin work on a Capital Improvement Plan. Maria wants to establish what the community needs from the various city agencies and departments, but also understand the physical infrastructure needs of the Ward, including housing, commercial properties, schools, parks, etc.

Build Civic Infrastructure – Maria is a community organizer at heart, and a good deal of the work she has done in her scholarly and professional life has revolved around strengthening community organizations and bringing more people into the government process. Maria believes in broad citizen participation and transparency in the governing process.

Building Relationships with the New Mayor and Aldermen – As a newly elected Alderwoman, Maria recognizes the importance of learning the ropes at City Hall, and forming working relationships with the other 49 Aldermen and Lori Lightfoot, the newly elected mayor.

Positions on Issues

Maria is a self-described progressive. Surprisingly (to me at least), Maria also said she does not like to align herself too closely with any specific group. She prefers to remain independent and believes this enables her to be freer to express her own views and positions without being labeled or boxed in.

We spoke about a number of hot topics of the day. Here are a few of the highlights:

Development without Displacement – This was a campaign slogan that Maria ran on. I asked her how it would work, and what specifically she thought it would entail.

Her response was measured – she is not opposed to development, and in fact recognizes its importance in the economic health of both Rogers Park and Chicago. She wants Rogers Park to be a community where people will want to live. She recognizes the importance of new people coming into the neighborhood. As a homeowner, she is all too familiar with the needs of older buildings and recognizes the critical importance of reinvesting in real estate to keep it safe and attractive.

She believes that, if we truly value diversity in the neighborhood, then we have to work to keep in from disappearing.

But she would like to see development that takes into consideration the needs of lower-income people, particularly those who have lived in the area for many years. Maria does not speak of these issues as a dispassionate observer. Her own experience buying, and then losing, a condominium unit in the Great Recession gives her first-hand knowledge of what it is like to struggle to keep your home.

While she recognizes the limits of what government can do – absent a stronger commitment of money and resources from the Federal government – Maria nevertheless believes it is critical to plan for the future with buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible. Maria believes that planning for the future should not just be for the next few years, but for the next 15 or 30. She believes that, if we truly value diversity in the neighborhood, then we have to work to keep in from disappearing.

Maria also talked about “smart development” which she defined as being proactive as opposed to reactive. One of her criticisms of her predecessor – Joe Moore – is that he frequently reacted to proposed developments. Maria believes a more proactive approach is necessary, working with the community to set an agenda.

These are worthy but daunting goals and Maria’s solutions may not be widely shared by the property owners who make up the membership of RPBG. But Maria seems eager to hear the views of her constituents and come up with solutions that are as broadly acceptable as possible. This will be a challenge. We will see how well she does.

She also believes rent control will be beneficial in the affordable housing effort. This is clearly an area where we will not find common ground.

No Donations from Developers – This was another campaign promise and includes developers, management companies and nursing home operators. She is proud of the fact that most of the money for her campaign came in small donations. Of the $215,000 she raised, 70% came from within the Ward and the average size of each donation was $75. She did accept $60,000 from labor groups and is strongly committed to labor organizations and unions.

Her reasons for declining developer donations is simple – she believes it is a matter of trust and independence. She is strongly committed to keeping the Lakefront as open and publicly accessible as possible, and wants to see the economic diversity of housing options in the neighborhood remain in place.

Affordable Housing – Maria believes that the first priority must be to preserve the affordable housing stock that is already in the neighborhood. Maria would also like to see more Community Development Corporations active in the neighborhood. She regrets that several CDCs that had been active prior to the Great Recession did not survive it. She would like to encourage new CDCs to form, or bring existing CDCs to the neighborhood from other areas.

Rent Control - She also believes rent control will be beneficial in the affordable housing effort. This is clearly an area where we will not find common ground. While we may continue to disagree on the merits of rent control, there may be areas of agreement about how it should be structured if, in fact, it becomes law in Chicago. There are many versions of rent control. While RPBG strongly believes that all forms are harmful, we also recognize that some versions are more harmful than others. This is a conversation that Maria appears to be willing to have. We should not shy away from the challenge.

Aldermanic Prerogative – Maria believes a balance needs to be struck between the legitimate input and oversight an Alderman can bring to his or her Ward, and the overreach that the current system permits. Maria is in favor of more comprehensive zoning and a stronger Planning / Zoning Department. She opposes the kind of “spot zoning” that has led to many abuses at the Aldermanic level. But she sees value in neighborhood control over local land-use policies and development initiatives. She views both the Police Academy and Lincoln Yards as examples of how not to do neighborhood planning.

Summary

On many important issues, Maria Hadden and RPBG are miles apart. But two things stood out as we chatted and got to know each other. First, whatever our political and philosophical differences, I couldn’t help but be both impressed and – if I’m totally honest – charmed by our new Alderwoman.

Civility is worth a lot. It may not be everything, but it’s not a bad way to get started.

Second, we don’t always have to agree to get along. Our world is already so polarized, and the anguish this causes can be overwhelming. I was surprised and delighted to feel such an easy connection with someone whose views are often quite different from my own. Civility is worth a lot. It may not be everything, but it’s not a bad way to get started.

We congratulate Maria Hadden on her impressive victory in the Aldermanic Race in the 49th Ward. We look forward to working with her over the next four years. We will do our best to establish a good relationship with her and work toward a better future for the Rogers Park community. If my two hours with Maria is any indication, there is common ground to be found.

Steve Cain is Secretary of RPBG. He writes articles and compiles content for our quarterly newsletter. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of RPBG and its Members.

 
 

 

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