In the second-floor hall crowded with Chicago residents impatiently waiting to enter the chambers for the City Council meeting, a woman in a gray suit walked by and greeted those standing in line with a smile and a handshake. Forty-ninth Ward Alderman, Maria Hadden — a relatively new face in City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St. — was clearly at ease in the Sept. 18 crowd.
Some of those in the crowd were members of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus who planned to meet with Hadden. The grassroots group’s dozens of seniors, clad in blue T-shirts, packed into her chambers to push for adoption of a “Senior Bill of Rights” that would address safety needs of seniors in public and private buildings. The measure was introduced during the council meeting by Housing Committee Chair, Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).
Housing issues at large are a priority for Hadden, who said she was particularly interested in preserving and improving the affordable housing in Rogers Park, the far North Side community she represents and has called home for more than a decade.
Affordable housing — along with a diverse community and proximity to the lake — is what drew this “independent progressive” to Rogers Park in 2007 after she moved to Chicago in 2004.
Hadden, 38, was born in Columbus, Ohio. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in International Peace and Conflict Studies and later earned a master’s degree in International Public Service Management from DePaul University.
“I ended up choosing that major because my mom wanted me to be the next United [Nations] Secretary General or something,” Hadden said. “Interestingly enough, everything I’ve done since then has been super local.”
One of those local activities was helping organize other condo owners in her Rogers Park building in an effort to save their homes after the 2008 housing market crash, according to a biography supplied by her office.
Hadden also has worked with communities across the country to adopt the concept of participatory budgeting, a process designed to allow ordinary citizens to directly decide how some public money is spent.
She sits on the board of Our City Our Voice, an organization that helps local governments create their own participatory budgeting policies. Rogers Park was Chicago’s first community to engage in participatory budgeting in 2009 , when Hadden helped then 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore with the project.
Nearly a decade later, Hadden would challenge and defeat Moore for his city council seat. In doing so, she became the new face championing independent progressive causes, a title Moore had claimed during his 28 years as an alderman.
Aside from the upset of the seat, Hadden’s election also was noteworthy in that she became the city’s first openly gay, black, female alderman — mirroring Chicago’s newly elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who became the first openly gay, black, female mayor of a major city.
Since taking office, Hadden has quickly gotten to work on her pet issues, including education.
“There are always a bunch of ongoing priorities for neighborhoods and wards. One of our top priorities revolve around education,” Hadden said. She said her ward recently received $34.5 million in significant capital funding for its public schools, something she described as “long overdue.”
“We’re really happy to have it. It will be used for roof repairs for two of our neighborhood schools and things like asbestos remediation,” she said. “Public education tends to be a priority — not just for the parents of school-aged kids — but other folks in the neighborhood who… believe, like I do, that having good choice neighborhood schools also helps build a stronger community.”
Hadden said the one thing that surprised her most after taking office is how often people will call to check in to see if she has changed her mind on various issues. But changing her mind is something that seldom happens, she said. “I’m a fairly decisive person.”
She is firm in her support of the legalization of marijuana as she believes it will not only generate revenue for the city, but help to remedy issues on the criminal justice side. “Black and brown populations have been criminalized for low-level offenses,” she said.
Hadden currently sits on eight committees at City Hall, including the Committee on Housing and Real Estate and the Committee on Zoning. On these committees, she said she hopes to work with her colleagues to find innovative paths to make home ownership more affordable.
“Our affordable housing issue is a challenge for several reasons. One, things are pretty expensive, right? The cost of building and construction are pretty high,” Hadden said, adding that another major piece of the puzzle is wages. “Income and wages aren’t rising, so it costs more for people,” she said.
Hadden said building more affordable housing could help but that’s a tough road, especially when it comes to financing. She said some solutions that fall under the umbrella of Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing, also known as NOAH, include raising wages and other economic justice-related remedies. Hadden supports increasing the minimum wage “to (make) it easier for wage workers, lower income folk (and) middle income folk.”
Hadden also said her ward recently received funds from a local organization to do a market study which will look into housing needs at a more fundamental level with an eye on the community’s future needs.
“We’ll work with public entities to help get more information on ‘who lives here, what are our needs?’” Hadden said. “It’s the stuff we’re doing now that’s going to have an impact for decades to come because that’s going to be there for the next 20 to 50 years.”
Clorice Bair, Kaya Lane and Ryan Rosenberger contributed to this report.