Saturday, July 7, 2012



I happened to be with my in-laws on Long Island during the Independence Day holiday and got to thinking about (What else with the markets very quiet?) Chicago politics. What prompted these great thoughts so far from home? At an Independence Day barbecue at the home of my sister-in-law and her husband, I met a retired New York City firefighter and his wife. They live in Queens in the same home they owned when he was on the job. Just to clarify my understanding, I asked him to verify my belief that there is no residency requirement for New York City cops and firefighters. He confirmed that is the case; indeed, only one very small group of New York City workers (I can’t remember which workers specifically, but it was an obscure and relatively low paid group.) must live in the city. Like many New York cops and firefighters, my new friend lives in Queens because he and his family like living in Queens; they could have moved to anywhere in a group of adjacent counties, including two in New Jersey, if they wished. He was surprised to learn that Chicago cops and firefighters have to live in the city of Chicago.

This got me to musing, as the evening wore on, about the residency requirement in our fair city, and I came to the conclusion that it may not be long for this world. The reasons, like everything else in Chicago, lie in politics.

The historical reasoning behind the residency requirement was the idea that cops and firefighters had to live close to work so they could get to their posts, or to the trouble, when there was trouble. That reasoning fell apart years ago with the advent of “modern” transportation, like cars. The archaic nature of this original rationale behind the residency requirement is made obvious by a few examples. It would be far easier for a cop who lived in, say, Orland Park to get to his precinct in Morgan Park than it would be for a cop who lives in Mount Greenwood to get to his precinct in Rogers Park. Similarly, it is easier for a New York cop who lives in, say, Smithtown to get to his precinct in Queens or Brooklyn than it would be for a cop who lives in Queens to get to his precinct in the Bronx.

Given the silliness of the accessibility argument for the residency requirement, no one is making that argument any more, at least not with a straight face. This leaves us with two rationales for Chicago’s residency requirement. First, the people who run the city have long had the “cops and firemen” vote, at least when the chips are down, and thus want to keep their votes in the city. In the days when patronage was far stronger than it is today, this was clearly the preeminent argument in favor of residency; why bother giving people a job with the city when they couldn’t return the favor at election time? This latter argument was more pertinent for city workers other than cops and firefighters, but the “what applies to one ought to apply to all” angle kept forced residency alive. Second, there is the argument that keeping the middle class, largely family oriented, cops, firefighters, and other city workers in Chicago is good for the stability of the city. (There is also a racial undertone to this argument, as everyone knows but few will admit, at least in public.) Without the city workers, the argument goes, the city would fast become a home to the very wealthy and the very poor but few of anybody else.

Given the problems that Mayor Emanuel is having with the cops and firefighters, which look, at this juncture, to be even worse than those Richard II had with our public safety officers, the “keep the votes in the city” line of reasoning is quickly evaporating. In fact, given the, er, disenchantment of just about all unionized city workers are having with the Mayor’s approach to their contracts, Mr. Emanuel might be happier if they couldn’t vote in the city. Without those pesky middle class city workers who are infuriated with the Mayor’s negotiating stance, Mr. Emanuel would only need the votes of his natural constituencies, i.e., the yuppies, the very poor, and the press, to get continually reelected until he decides the time is right to run for president.

But what about the second argument, i.e., keeping the middle class city workers in the city and thus maintaining the stable, safe, and attractive neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts for which they serve as the core? I honestly believe that, given Mr. Emanuel’s upbringing in a wealthy north shore suburb and his current residence in a neighborhood populated with consanguineous dazzling young urbanites with multiple degrees and multiple six figure incomes, he has little or no appreciation for what such neighborhoods as Archer Heights, Mount Greenwood, Jefferson Park, or Edison Park, and the people who populate them, mean for our city. The residents of these neighborhoods, largely city workers, might as well live in Abyssinia for all the familiarity Mr. Emanuel and his yuppie coterie have with them. What’s destroying a few neighborhoods in which Mr. Emanuel and his newly arrived cohorts would never consider living if the payoff is getting rid of pesky pockets of opposition to the all-wise, all-seeing, all-knowing Rahm?

There is a third reason that getting rid of the residency requirement would be attractive to Mayor Emanuel. It relates to something I wrote on the Pontificator years ago (but I can’t find the old post) and which few people have considered: elimination of the residency requirement would hurt no one more than it would hurt cops, firefighters, and city workers. Why? Because if the “cop bid” goes away from neighborhoods like Mount Greenwood, Archer Heights, and other areas on the city’s periphery, the value of homes in those neighborhoods plummets. Sure, many, probably most, city workers will remain in these neighborhoods because they are great places to live, but, at the margin, the bid on homes in these neighborhoods will weaken as new cops choose to live in the suburbs and more than a few veterans get tired of the old neighborhood and seek greener pastures in the ‘burbs, as have legions of former city residents who didn’t work for the city. Further, as more people make that choice, the “cop neighborhoods” will become less attractive and a downward spiral will begin…or continue .

The typical city worker has most of his or her net worth tied up in his or her home. If the value of that home is eviscerated by the elimination of the “cop bid,” the city worker, and most saliently the cop or the firefighter is, to use a highly technical financial term, screwed. Smart cops and firefighters know this; that is why the subject of residency comes up in just about every contract negotiation but little or no noise is made when it is cast aside early in the bargaining. Mr. Emanuel gives at least this writer the impression is the kind of guy who takes great pleasure in inflicting pain on those who stand in his way or give him problems, if only to live up to his press billings as some sort of reincarnation of a combined George Patton/Lucky Luciano/Niccolo Machiavelli. Do you think Mayor Emanuel would hesitate to stick it to the cops, firefighters, teachers, etc., who are getting in the way of his master plan for Chicago? I don’t, especially when there is potential political payoff for him, in the form of getting pockets of opposition out of the city and thus unable to vote, in doing so.

So by getting rid of the residency requirement, the Mayor takes some pesky voters off the rolls and sticks it hard to some people with the temerity to challenge his abundant and manifest wisdom. That he debilitates some of our city’s great neighborhoods in the process is either a non-concern or another big plus for our dazzling urbanite mayor.

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