For Austin residents struggling to make ends meet financially, their greatest concerns for the upcoming election have more to do with immediate, personal needs rather than the big-picture issues dominating news cycles. These residents said that jobs and a stable income seem increasingly hard to come by and that the neighborhood has seen little outside investment over the past few decades.

Daryce Jenkins, 26, knows this struggle all too well. She sat in a meeting room in Hope Community Advent Church, 5900 W. Iowa St., on a brisk afternoon in January and outlined her issues with finding consistent employment. “I’ve been looking for another job about two years now. I’m still in the same place I started,” she said. “You rarely hear back from them or when you do hear back from them, they give you like one interview and you don’t hear back from them again.”

This cycle of frustration forces Austin residents to seek jobs far outside of their community, which presents its own set of issues. “I work part-time so I’ll take public transportation to and from work since I don’t drive. I also have a toddler… I don’t have enough to get bus fare. Sometimes I’ll miss days of work just because I didn’t have a way to get there,” Jenkins said.

Adrian Hopkins, 23, who currently works as a cook, also understands the struggles presented by a lack of local options. In an interview during his commute on the Green Line, he said, “There are jobs on the West Side in retail and customer service at the small strip malls and the charter schools.” These jobs, though, can be scarce and simply aren’t enough to cover daily expenses. “The Whole Foods where I work is 45 minutes away from our neighborhood,” he added. 

But residents found it difficult to provide solutions. Some older residents remembered a time when when companies like the Brach’s Candy Factory employed thousands of West Side residents.  But those manufacturing jobs left and were never replaced.

Judy Young, 61, is a lifelong West Side resident who said that local high schools should place an emphasis on vocational and entrepreneurial skills. “These kids need to learn trades, something to teach them how to survive once they graduate,” she said, “so when the kids do get out of school, if they decide not to go to college, that there’s some kind of warehouse or a factory that they qualify for.”

Still, without stronger economic infrastructure to bring businesses to the area, jobs remain hard to come by, and without a stable source of income, residents can’t afford to keep businesses around. LaToya Daniels, 37, moved to Austin a decade ago and has started a family in the neighborhood. She said that she has seen this cycle of promising development that opens with fanfare then must shutter within a few years, especially in the main business corridors.

“That’s a lot of investment and infrastructure for you to be closed in less than a year,” she said.

Since 2000, Austin has lost over 20,000 residents, following a citywide trend that has seen over 180,000 black Chicagoans leave the city in that same time span. While this exodus has been attributed to several overlapping issues, a major cause is residents being financially unable to remain in their neighborhoods. Reflecting on how her neighborhood has changed over the 35 years she has lived in Austin, Judy Young said, “Lots of us are losing our properties. So it’s changing. They don’t have jobs anymore. Or the parents died and the kids weren’t tied to anything and lost the property,” she said. “I want to see them be able to hold on.”

Candidate Responses 

Mayoral Candidates

Toni Preckwinkle: Implement $15 minimum wage. Use more TIF money to develop overlooked commercial areas like most parts of Austin. “We should focus development around transit.”

Susana Mendoza: Implement $15 minimum wage, but only if the state gets to that level first. Industrial Growth Zones program should help manufacturers build capacity, train employees and invest in new equipment. Expand city policy that encourages developers to hire minority- and women-owned contractors by “making it law” and require hiring of “returning citizens or participants in violence-reduction initiatives.” 

Willie Wilson*: Current minimum wage ($13/hour) is OK, wants “additional options that include entrepreneurship and other economic opportunities.” Give “city purchasing contracts to small local vendors who will hire local community residents.”

La Shawn K. Ford: Invest in community first to attract private investments from banks to encourage development. Implement $15 min wage.

Amara Enyia*: Encourage cooperative enterprises for collective ownership. Create a public bank and use savings on interest to fund job training and infrastructure investments, expand small business sector and diversify commercial corridors.

Gery Chico: Partner with local businesses to expand the number of job shadowing and internship/apprenticeship opportunities to all 17,000 students who take Career and Technical Education courses. Supports big initiative to expand technical education for CPS students.

Bill Daley: Neutral on minimum wage issue and is waiting for state legislation.

Paul Vallas: Offer premiums to businesses willing to hire and train people from the community. Stop offering incentives for outside developers to build in affluent areas. Create “Chicago Equity Investment Fund” for one-third of TIF dollars to go to blighted areas of the city.

Aldermanic Candidates

28th Ward Candidates 

Jason Ervin: Supported the $13 dollar minimum wage that took effect in 2018.  

Jasmine Jackson: Supports community benefits agreements in development projects and increasing the minimum wage.

Miguel Bautista: Work with zoning committee to ensure that people are placed over developers. Support community benefit agreements. Require developers to reserve 20 to 30 percent of jobs for residents. $15 minimum wage is not enough. Will use his IT background to build a tech training facility and provide job training. Build a new chamber of commerce specifically for the 28th Ward.

Justina Winfrey: Implement participatory budgeting and use TIF dollars for community-based projects. Said $15 wage is not sufficient. 

Beverly Miles: Turn closed schools into job-training facilities. Improve transportation so Austin residents can more easily commute to jobs in the suburbs. Strengthen the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

29th Ward Candidates 

Chris Taliaferro: Bring jobs by spurring new business opportunities. Supports $15 minimum wage, says it must rise with the economy.

Zerlina Smith: Prioritize participatory budget spending for community development and job creation instead of beautification processes. Use “a model like Heartland Alliance” to employ the most at-risk youth in the ward. Implement $15/hour minimum wage. 

Dwayne Truss: Bring vocational programs to Austin that are accessible to young people during the day and to adults at night. Phase in a $15/hour minimum wage. Encourage philanthropic community to help sustainably fill voids on West and South Sides left by federal funding cuts.

37th Ward Candidates 

Emma Mitts*: Touted her ability to attract national employers to the ward, such as Walmart, Food 4 Less and Taco Bell. Said developers wanting TIF funds and other tax incentives should be committed to “creating certain amount of jobs” and benefiting the community. 

Deondre Rutues: Persuade hemp manufacturers to move production into Austin’s abandoned manufacturing sites.

Tara Stamps: Implement $15/hour minimum wage; believes it should be higher than that. Aldermen should aggressively help match skilled residents with employment opportunities. Big companies looking to move into the ward should be held accountable. Incumbent didn’t hold Walmart accountable or demand a community benefits agreement.

* Indicates candidate did not respond to requests for interview and responses are pulled from public comments.

This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.