Kelwin Harris is a city planner dedicated to creating equitable communities and empowering people who have historically been excluded from connectivity. He is currently the director of outreach and engagement for the Office of Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, where he leads public participation initiatives for residents of Cook County. Previously, he was a senior outreach planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), where he translated policy and dense data into issues families care about around the kitchen table, like climate change, affordable housing and equity. He has served the Chicago community for years in numerous roles. He led social services, economic development, violence prevention and nutrition and financial interventions in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood as director of a nonprofit and served in the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley. He is a board member of Acero Schools and is a graduate of Cornell University and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
You just started your work in the County Assessor’s office. What are some of the challenges you face?
Having worked in regional planning throughout the Chicago area, it’s clear that one of the top issues that concerns residents is their property taxes. The current assessment formula has been notoriously unfair, unpredictable and, in many cases, a burden to low-income homeowners in places like the South Suburbs of Cook County disproportionately. My role is essentially helping newly elected Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi create messaging and an outreach strategy to demystify the assessment process, decode the current byzantine property tax formula and give residents confidence that their assessments are fair and equitable.
The previous system was designed around appeals rather than fairly assessing properties up front. This does not impact only homeowners but also commercial real estate owners, who fear their taxes in this category will go up as a result of reforms to the commercial assessment system. Some are predicting this could harm the real estate market and investment community. Part of my job is assuring the real estate community that the Chicago market will remain competitive and open for business and the risk of investing in Chicago will decrease as a result of a better formula.
Lastly, I work with a legislative affairs and policy team to push for legislation that boosts transparency, creates valuable market data and improves the reputation of the assessor’s office. To be specific, we’d like to pass a bill that requires property owners of a certain scale to submit basic rent and real estate operating income and expense information at the start of the assessment process. This is by no means radical; other places like New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and DC already require this, and many are surprised this data was not being collected here and taken into consideration in valuing property.
What were some of your accomplishments when you worked for CMAP?
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) gave me the chance to participate in planning and outreach in not only the city of Chicago but the collar counties as well, including seven counties and 284 cities. I had a chance to see how broad and diverse our region’s challenges are and influence policy areas like climate change, transportation technology, racial equity and inclusive growth at a macro level. CMAP writes the long range plan for Chicago every 10 years so it was great to be a part of that effort. The current plan, which is called ON TO 2050, looks 30 years ahead and offers recommendations and prioritizes strategies for growth. I worked with a team of about 100 people—brilliant experts in all aspects of planning and policy. In addition to this long range regional plan, I also worked on plans in municipalities and diverse neighborhoods like North Lawndale, DuPage County and the South Suburbs of Cook County. Working at CMAP allowed me to see the full scale of our region’s challenges and the range of experiences our residents face. I also saw how poor our region’s transportation infrastructure is and the urgency of addressing the conditions of our roads, bridges and transit system. I was part of an outreach and advocacy effort that led to the $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” capital bill for infrastructure recently signed by Gov. Pritzker. The bill is the largest capital plan in Illinois state history. I am encouraged that this will give much-needed relief to our transportation system, but there’s much more to be done.
What were some more notable experiences working in the Richard M. Daley administration?
I was apprehensive about working in the Daley administration at first. I was concerned about the history of policies that led to inequality and segregation in housing, public education and policing in Chicago. I knew that one could trace some of the groundwork for these policies back to his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Because of this, I didn’t jump at the chance to work in any Daley administration. I accepted the position because I thought it would give me a chance to influence power from the inside. After working there and meeting the team, I gained great respect and an appreciation for the mayor’s attempts to address some of his father’s faults and be more equitable.
I learned many lessons in leadership from the team in the Daley administration. I was in my early 20s and making decisions on behalf of the mayor and convening commissioners and department heads on a regular basis. The experience was humbling and surreal. Within my first few weeks on the job, the mayor directed city bulldozers in the middle of the night to carve giant “XX”s on the runway of former Meigs Field Airport. The administration had ordered this airport closed to turn the space into a park for all Chicagoans to enjoy, like the original 1909 Daniel Burnham Plan of Chicago prescribed, which is Northerly Island today. Amidst the media firestorm, I remember going into City Hall the next day with the people who gave the orders and thinking, “Wow, this is Chicago!”.
I was mostly working on the Plan for Transformation, an effort to demolish Chicago’s notorious public housing high-rises, like Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes, and replace them with mixed-income communities. This involved relocating thousands of people in the process. I was also part of leading the city’s response to welcoming Hurricane Katrina victims from New Orleans and getting them services and resources they needed during that crisis.
Of all my experiences in the Daley administration, most important was the chance to develop lasting relationships with extremely smart and talented problem solvers and work alongside influencers like Valerie Jarrett, Mayor Lightfoot (when she was a City employee) and numerous civic, business and community leaders.
Were there people or activities at Parker that influenced the choices you’ve made since graduating?
I can’t say enough about Lil Lowry. She exposed me to Parker and recruited me from my elementary school, St. Sabina Academy. She attended the church there and decided to see if some students would be interested in Parker. I was chosen along with a classmate, Sabrina McCall. I vividly remember the day Mrs. Lowry showed up and sat in the library of our school. Before going in, the principal adjusted my tie and seemed more nervous than I was. I knew then Parker had to be a big deal. Mrs. Lowry was a warm person and made Parker seem like a magical door to opportunities at a critical stage in my life. One key selling point for me was the caliber of colleges Parker students attended after graduation. She invited me to come to the school and shadow a student for a day. I couldn’t wait. I left the library feeling energized and ready to go home and tell my parents. On my visit, I arrived at Parker and met the student I would be shadowing, Jason Fosco, who became a good buddy throughout high school. From that day throughout my four years at Parker, Mrs. Lowry made it a point to have regular check-ins with me and made me feel like it was my home and that I belonged.
Parker inspired me to change my community and city. Not only was the education in the classroom important but so was the opportunity to be part of a model community that was different from my own. My observations along the bus and train route back and forth each day from the South Side to the North Side also inspired me to be involved in civic leadership. I saw the contrast of bustling street life, coffee shops and luxury boutiques against vacant lots, crumbling buildings and unkept sidewalks all out of the bus window as I traveled to school. From then on, I knew I’d be a leader in finding solutions to making sure all neighborhoods benefited from the kind of investment they deserve.
What are some of your favorite Parker memories?
I was deeply into hip hop music in the ’90s so I remember being in all the talent shows I could participate in and freestyling while trying to send “shout-outs” to all the classmates I could remember on the spot. I remember being in a production of Merchant of Venice and feverishly rehearsing lines with the cast. Of course, the Morning Exes—especially the one when we were first introduced to something called “The Internet” and how to use email. I remember having big fun at County Fairs and hanging out in the Alcove and cat boxes in between classes. I remember “Everything to help, nothing to hinder” and thinking how much that slogan made sense. More than anything, I remember being amongst brilliant friends in a nurturing environment with the freedom to create and feeling like the world was ours.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work? Do you have family you spend time with?
Family is important to me. My mom passed away four years ago, and she cherished my opportunity to get a world-class education at Parker and beyond. I still live on the South Side of Chicago. I have a brother who is battling Alzheimer’s so spending time with him and helping him fight this awful disease is a priority for me. My dad just turned 81, and I also have a big sister, Kimberly, and nephew Frederick, who’s 19. I don’t have kids but Frederick is like a son. I also serve on the board of directors of a charter school network in Chicago and try to be active in my local community. For fun, I still love music and DJ weddings and special events. I also like to read, travel and checkout White Sox games.