Online forum discusses barriers to affordable housing in Chicago

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Chicago’s history of racist housing structures has contributed to an ongoing crisis of affordable and accessible housing, according to speakers at “Chicago’s Housing Crisis: A Catholic Response.”

The June 17 online forum, held via Zoom call, had about 60 participants, according to Ryan Lents, director of the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity, who hosted the event. The office administers the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the archdiocese and has worked with many grassroots organizations that provide affordable housing and advocate for more equitable housing policies.

Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the dignity of every human person and the need to support the common good, demands that all people have a safe place to live, according to a greeting from Cardinal Cupich read by Auxiliary Bishop Mark Bartosic.

“We affirm the right of every person to adequate food, a living wage and affordable housing,” the greeting read. “Without these three basic elements, it is impossible to maintain good health and provide a safe, nurturing environment for children. Unstable and substandard housing is the single most important social determinant of health. We can’t claim to be pro-life and pro-family without taking up the cause of addressing the housing crisis also as a public health crisis.”

The cardinal’s message acknowledged that rising housing costs have made it difficult for many families, to make ends meet, and that gentrification and displacement of families is a problem, as is racial segregation.

The crisis is severe for many families.

Jimmy Thomas, a rental counselor for the Northwest Side Housing Center in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, said that a third of homeowners pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, but more than half of renters do. One in four renters pays more than half their income for housing, leaving little money for food, medical care, education or other expenses.

However, federal housing relief is skewed toward homeowners, with about $90 billion in federal tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes in 2015, with the biggest deductions going to homeowners with the most expensive houses and the biggest mortgages.

At the same time, the federal government provided about $51 billion in the rental assistance, in the form of Section 8 vouchers, public housing and other assistance. Only one out of four people who qualified for assistance received anything, Thomas said.

He shared the story of a client, an elderly widow of a veteran who needs to use a wheelchair. The rent on her senior apartment is $800 a month; her monthly income is $908, all from Social Security. Thomas has helped her apply for veterans’ benefits and get on the waiting lists for several subsidized apartments, but the client thinks she’ll die before she gets one.

“She might be right,” Thomas said.

The issue of affordable housing is also a issue of racial disparity. Close too three-fourths of white households own their homes, while fewer than half of Black and Hispanic households do, Thomas said.

Michael Rabbitt of Neighbors for Affordable Housing said the Chicago neighborhoods are still nearly as segregated as they were in 1968, when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

“Structural racism in the U.S. housing system has contributed to stark and persistent racial disparities in health, education, access to jobs and overall financial well-being,” Rabbitt said.

He described the way members of his mostly white community reacted to a proposal to build affordable housing there over the last few years.

“Chants outside of one public meeting made it sound like the 1960s,” Rabbitt said. “‘No Section 8. Get back on the bus.’ These experiences tell us we have a problem. We have work to do. We must do more to meet our responsibilities for fair, just and equitable housing.”

Rabbitt said he is hopeful that the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd might mark a real change in awareness of racial injustice in the United States.

“It’s really put racism front and center in our nation, possibly as much as I’ve ever seen. We’re seeing many people who previously struggled to see racism as anything other than individual prejudice who are now being able to consider and understand the systemic and structural aspects of racism. This includes an increased awareness of how housing justice is connected to racism.”

Lissette Castañeda, interim executive director of LUCHA, an organization that both advocates for and develops affordable housing, cited a 2017 study by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Planning Council that found housing segregation costs Chicago residents $4.4 billion each year.

Castañeda also talked about the effect gentrification has on Black and Latino families. Her own family moved from Lincoln Park to Logan Square in 1994 to find a home they could afford. Now gentrification is forcing families to leave Logan Square.

The median cost of homes near the 606, an elevated bike and running trail that opened in 2015, increased 344 percent from 2012 to 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, Castañeda said, with more than 30 percent of tenants unable to pay rent at some point this spring and 40 percent of families making under $40,000 suffering a job loss. Assistance programs were quickly overwhelmed with the number of people asking for help.

“You cannot shelter in place without a home,” she said. “You cannot be healthy without a home.”

Another population that has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is prisoners who are being released in greater numbers because of the pandemic, according to MaryClare Birmingham, director of Kolbe House, the archdiocese’s ministry to people affected by incarceration.

As infection rates ramped up, the Department of Corrections wanted to start releasing prisoners near the end of their sentences to help relieve overcrowding and turned to non-profits to help them find places to go, Birmingham said.

Kolbe House is part of a consortium of non-profits providing assistance to newly released inmates, mostly men of color. When they are released, she said, the former inmates have the clothes they are wearing, a bus ticket to wherever they are going and $10.

It’s no wonder that 40 percent of former inmates reoffend, Birmingham said.

“It’s high because the essential conditions for a successful return to the community are not available to them,” she said, defining those conditions as employment, health care and housing. “The Department of Corrections does very little to help a person plan for their release. They have to rely on family or friend networks. The sad reality is many of those networks have disintegrated.”

That’s especially true for those who have been in prison for many years, she said.

The barriers they face when it comes to finding housing include lack of money and lack of credit, as well the stigma of having been in prison, which keeps people from wanting to hire or rent to them. Many end up couch surfing — going from friend to friend or relative to relative — or on the streets.

“We have to open up the system because the conditions are unmeetable,” Birmingham said. “They have no hope of overcoming the conditions at the outset.”

That doesn’t mean ignoring safety risks; rather, it means acknowledging that no one’s safety is served by putting people out on the street, she said.


  • housing
  • racism

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