Politics

Battling Legacies of Neglect

A conversation with city treasurer Kurt Summers

Raziel Puma

Kurt Summers, 37, is city treasurer of Chicago and a young up-and-comer in the political landscape. Originally from Bronzeville, he currently lives in Hyde Park.

Summers has served as chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whose name is often floated as a potential mayoral candidate, and as trustee for the Cook County Pension Fund. He was working as a senior vice president at Grosvenor Capital Management, run by a buddy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s named Michael Sacks, before Emanuel appointed him in 2014 to replace Stephanie Neely as city treasurer. Summers won a reelection bid in 2015 for his first full term.

Unlike many city politicians, the Harvard-groomed finance whiz doesn’t hesitate to speak on the systemic racism that has dampened the fortunes of black families for hundreds of years, and created the crisis faced by many of Chicago’s black neighborhoods. According to Summers, a graduate of Whitney Young High School who now manages the city’s $7 billion investment portfolio, these neighborhoods suffer from “an economic problem, not a violence problem.” I spoke with him the day after the 2016 election.

How are you feeling today about last night’s election results?

I’m still in shock, honestly. I was astonished. My wife and I were up late watching everything and I woke her up when the call came from Secretary Clinton conceding the race and she was in disbelief. I think I was for several hours. But I think we have an important lesson to learn from this which is about the real sentiment underlying half of our country, and the fact that half of our country is able to support a candidate who has the views that he has around race, around immigration, around gender. It’s pretty astonishing and should be a wake-up call for all of those who don’t share those values.

You know, Trump sort of threw Chicago under the bus as some catch-all symbol of violence in urban communities, especially black communities. What do you think he missed in those mischaracterizations of Chicago?

I think it was all Chicago equals violence, Chicago equals black people and inner city equals black people killing each other. And while we are having one of the worst, most violent years on record in the last two decades and we just came off of the worst weekend during that period of time, it doesn’t define the people of Chicago, it doesn’t define black people in Chicago. I think he was in his narrative lumping this all together as all of black people, [as if] the 800,000 or 900,000 of them who live here are represented by the more than 600 murders we’ve had this year.

But that’s not the case for how our communities are defined, or the generations and legacy of people here, and it’s also, I’m of the opinion, sorely missing the point of what the root cause of violence issues we have, particularly in Chicago, but really in urban areas around this country. It’s not about a violent people, it’s about a lack of equality and a lack of equal access to economic opportunity.

You’ve said we have an economic problem, not a violence problem. Can you talk more about what that means?

I think we have a legacy in this country, dating back to its founding, of systemic inequality, institutional racism, and to see it across everything from our schools to our housing to wages and economic opportunities…. Since the post-Reconstruction era we’ve had everything from Black Codes and Jim Crow and lynching that have created inequality in our society, and we’ve seen it in Chicago since the first Great Migration in our housing, in our employment, in our schools. I think it’s most acute in the economic situation on the South and West Sides.

When we talk about what the solution of the problem is, often the solution is limited to a policing strategy. And I would maintain that no amount of policing we can add to the South and West Sides of Chicago will change the economic conditions of the people in those neighborhoods who suffer from deep poverty, a lack of hope, and severe despair. And in that situation the only thing that can change that is opportunity—economic opportunity.

And so when I say we have an economic problem and not a violence problem—people in Chicago are not inherently violent. Black and brown people, we are not wired to be violent. It’s not in our genetic code. It’s an issue of nurture and not nature, and requires all of us to have a greater understanding of the root causes of these problems.

Growing up in Chicago, what contributed to you having that understanding you just described to me? What did you see that influenced your understanding of this economic problem?

I grew up in the Bronzeville area, 45th and King Drive, 45th and Michigan. And I saw when I looked at my neighborhood, and when I went on a field trip downtown or to the zoo or a museum…a completely different neighborhood, one that, when I came back to my neighborhood, made me say, “Why does theirs look like that and ours looks like this? Why are they worthy of investment and we’re not? And who determines that?” And that stark contrast left an indelible mark on me to continue asking these questions. And then I looked at my friends who were just as smart and just as capable and had different outcomes than me by virtue of chance and favor.

What kind of outcomes?

Friends who would end up in jail, friends who ended up out of school, friends who got involved in drugs and gangs. I was surrounded by that and all throughout where I grew up. And the difference wasn’t they were less sensible, less smart, less hard-working that they ended up not in school. The difference was I was fortunate to have a greater hedge of protection around me and really blessed that God saw fit not to let me go down that path. But there were so few good opportunities for people and so much of a prevalence of other lifestyles and dangerous opportunities right in front of them—there was a limited set of choices that young people growing up where I grew up had.

What did you think was the dividing line that determined who had and who didn’t have?

I thought it was geography, and by virtue of the segregation of the city, race.

How does that picture look to you now as a city official looking at the same issues?

I would say it’s one of the single most motivating factors I have when I wake up every day, the fact that that amount of economic disparity by race and neighborhood in this city still exists, and when I go to the neighborhood I grew up in, most of it looks like it did thirty years ago.

What do you mean?

I mean empty lots. Abandoned buildings. People who are in deep poverty or homeless. Still-significant drug and mental health problems. Bboth the physical conditions of the infrastructure and the real conditions of people and families in those communities have not improved, and have in many respects gotten worse.

You talk about this pattern of financial neglect in these communities, and this picking of winners and losers when it comes to neighborhoods and people’s outcomes—who’s accountable for the way we have approached community development and how public finance tools and public planning are used?

I think we are all to blame. I think our elected leaders and public officials are to blame. I think community leaders share in that blame. As voters and the electorate we’ve participated in it. And families and residents in communities, we’ve all participated in a system that has allowed us to exist with this kind of disparity and divide.

If we wanted representation that would speak out and be change agents for our communities, we’ve had chances to put those people in office. If we wanted to vote for those issues as community leaders, we have some very intelligent, thoughtful people in leadership positions, not just elected, but people in leadership positions in our communities who have allowed this to happen. And we’ve all been participants, whether explicitly or implicitly, in this process. I think for us to change that, it’s not just what one elected official can do, one mayor, one treasurer. Everyone has to step up…and say “this is no longer acceptable to continue to live in a society that allows this disparity.”

On November 16, City Council approved the mayor’s 2017 budget, which included the Chicago Community Catalyst Fund. Summers calls it Fund 77, after the city’s seventy-seven community areas. The fund leverages the city’s investment portfolio to reap profits and spur private investment that would go toward low-income census tracts, of which there are a high concentration on the South and West Sides, but also in North Side communities like Uptown.

The city’s contribution to the fund will total $35 million this year and next year, and $30 million more in 2018, according to Summers, who said his goal is to have the city’s $100 million matched by $300 million in private funds. No more than twenty percent of the fund’s assets would go to any one project, he said.

Now I want to get into Fund 77. Can you give a brief overview of what it is and how it works?

Fundamentally, we came up with this idea almost right when I got into office and went to all seventy-seven neighborhoods in my first seventy-seven days in office, and there was a consistent theme of every conversation, which was the need to raise capital, and how in communities across the city there was a lack of access to capital and there was no real ability to solve it on the horizon. When I looked at this I was particularly interested because this office has been on the first floor of city hall for the better part of several decades now and controls a lot of capital. That capital has mandates to be invested in every part of the world—South America, the Middle East, western Europe, every part of the world but our backyard, which happens to be the third largest market in the largest national economy in the world.

And I thought, for us to have a mandate to invest the people of Chicago’s money everywhere in the world but not with the people of Chicago and neighborhoods in ways that can benefit them directly…that was the genesis of this. And ultimately, we devised a way to take a piece of their capital and put it to work in their neighborhoods. This fund is really meant to be a seed investment that also encourages further private capital.

When we talk about the history, this legacy of financial neglect in some of these communities, do you see this tool as taking that on?

I think this is simply putting our capital where our priorities are, and it is absolutely an attempt to help fight the legacy of disinvestment in communities of Chicago for decades. It’s an important step, but it’s just one step in this fight against this legacy of practices of disinvestment. We’re going to need a lot more.

I want to ask about the fund’s governance structure. I know there will be a board of directors and an advisory board. I know you’ll have involvement, there will be some appointees, but where is there space for community input or for people on the ground who know these communities and have been working to improve these neighborhoods despite the disinvestment? Where is there space for the community in these decision-making bodies?

We’re going to have the fund board, which I will chair. It will have the CFO of the city and the commissioner of planning, and then four external experts in investment who will help provide recommendations to the mayor. The mayor will select people qualified for the board. There will be a separate advisory council that will participate in every board meeting, including members of the city council and community members who are people just like the ones you mentioned who have been working in communities throughout their careers, and those will be selected by the fund board itself.

Will there be language to ensure certain areas are priorities, and that [the money] goes to needy areas? I guess I’m thinking about the TIF program which, if you read it, sounds good on paper. It says there’s assistance for blighted areas that wouldn’t otherwise see private development without help from the TIF—that’s written into every TIF district agreement. And I know there are reasons why TIFs work better in some areas than other areas (TIF revenue is dependent on property values), but we’ve seen a pattern of more of those development dollars going to areas that were white or affluent or gentrifying. How do we ensure that that doesn’t happen in this case—that people and private companies who have money to do projects already aren’t just given public funds to enrich their bottom line?

You can write any law you want, but you still need to have the right leadership and team to execute it in a way consistent with that law. What we’ve done here is be very clear with the ordinance that the priority is on CRA-qualifying census tracts [lower-income communities eligible for Community Reinvestment Act benefits] and what we’ve agreed to do in the RFPs themselves is to make sure we have a criteria consistent with our objectives on diversity and geography, and have that representation be part of the criteria for the partner that gets selected. But then ultimately firms and people need to be held accountable, and that requires leadership willing to do that. Given that this is something I designed with that intent, that’s what I’ll be doing.

What would you say to somebody who said that these are the city’s investment dollars being targeted for particular areas…well, my area isn’t one of those census tracts, why are these dollars going somewhere I won’t benefit? What’s the appeal for somebody who doesn’t live in one of these census tracts to even give a damn about what this fund is trying to do?

The cover of the Wall Street Journal on the first day of November this year was about the violence in the city of Chicago. If you don’t think that impacts people thinking about investing in the city, growing in the city, living in the city, creating jobs in the city, you’re kidding yourself. What happens in those other communities impacts you because it’s part of the national discourse on the future of the city and whether it is worthy of investment and can create the proper value proposition to grow and thrive and create jobs here. We’re trying to solve this problem because it’s not possible for Chicago to answer those question positively when we’re leaving entire segments of poor population behind.

Looking at the mayor’s approval rating, especially in the aftermath of the school closings and the Laquan McDonald scandal, the black community’s trust in the administration is especially low. This legacy of financial neglect has been there, but those other things add on top of that. Some people see things coming out of the city focused on the communities as something that lends itself to Rahm’s approval ratings, or helps the administration look like it cares about communities that a lot of people have felt that historically this administration and others haven’t cared as much about. Is there any political element of this or any political advantage for the administration to be putting its backing behind something like this? Are there politics involved?

I think this is Chicago. And for better or worse, every policy decision has political implications. But what I can tell you is on my first day in office, December 1, 2014, I put out a plan that said investing in our Chicago, which means not just downtown Chicago but the neighborhoods…and the very first point was to make our capital and invest in our neighborhoods. That was before [the Laquan McDonald scandal], before Rahm Emanuel’s second term or approval ratings being what they are or anybody thinking what’s politically expedient. That’s because I saw a problem I’ve been looking at for thirty years, and I was in position to do something about it.

You’re somebody who was appointed by the mayor, you’re someone who has been tied to him, but you’ve also been tied to possibly running for his current job. Is there any weirdness created by that dynamic? You’re doing these things that are being applauded, you’re in the media a lot lately…how do you navigate that relationship given what everyone is saying about you possibly replacing the guy?

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I view this role as an honor and a privilege, and I really love this job and I think I’m uniquely qualified for it and have spent my career preparing for it. I’m a firm believer in the saying: “We make plans, and God laughs.” I feel like I was led to this role. I didn’t see it coming but I prayed about it, my wife and I fasted, I thought long and hard about it, and for as long as I continue to love it I’m gonna do it. And I’ll let God reveal his path to me when the time comes.

But for people who want to prognosticate and think about future political aspirations, what I would say is two things. One, we have such a dire need and dire problems in the city right now we don’t have the luxury of just focusing on what needs to be done three years from now instead of the work that needs to be done today. Two, I would say that those people probably don’t know me very well, because the people who know me know how much I love this job.

Do you love it too much to run for mayor of this town?

Well I think that’s a few years away, so I’m gonna do this as long as I feel like I enjoy it and it’s what I’m being led to do. My wife and I are still getting used to and comfortable with being in the public eye, all this is very new for us. So I’d say talk to me in a couple years and we’ll see.

Thoughts on “Battling Legacies of Neglect”

  1. Two thoughts–whatever happened to the 50 million dollars raised for violence prevention a couple of years ago? Secondly, we shouldn’t have to “know you better” Treasurer Summers to believe in and measure your value to the city. Words speak, but actions speak louder.

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