Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting

Neighbors help 76-year-old woman fight to keep home that’s been in her family for generations

Mary Bonelli hardly knew anyone among the 40 or so people clustered in front of her two-story brick home in Belmont-Cragin.

“They’re all strangers,” she said. “It means a lot knowing that I am not alone.”

The “strangers” were from Chicago’s Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction. They had gathered to protest Bonelli’s forthcoming eviction from her home and support her as she announced her plans to stay, despite the foreclosure.

“Today, I am out of legal options, but I still have the option to stay here and fight for my house, as long as all of you will fight with me,” Bonelli told the crowd on Jan. 16.

Earlier that day, Bonelli found out her name was being put on the Cook County sheriff’s eviction list, meaning she could be thrown out of her home any day now. But she hasn’t left, nor does she plan to. She, along with volunteers from Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, are also planning to have an eviction blockade, where people block the sheriff’s department from accessing the home to remove Bonelli.

Rebecca Burns, a volunteer with Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, told The Chicago Reporter today in an email that the group is developing a phone tree of neighbors and supporters who would participate in the eviction blockade.

“We are hoping that the bank will agree to negotiate before the situation reaches this point, but Mary’s neighbors will not stand by while a 76-year-old woman with no place else to go is evicted,” Burns said.

Bonelli said a bank error triggered the foreclosure of her home. Apparently, Fifth Third bank’s automatic payment system that was supposed to deduct her mortgage payment each month stopped working. Even though she said the money is still sitting in her bank account, the foreclosure went through quickly, and the home was sold to the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae, in October 2012.

Representatives from Fifth Third Bank and Fannie Mae did not respond to emails and voicemails from The Chicago Reporter asking for comment on Bonelli’s case.

Bonelli’s grandparents bought the home at 2334 N. Mason Ave. in 1921, and three generations of her family have lived there. She was born in Chicago and has lived in this house since 1958. Losing her home would be heartbreaking. But she’s not going to back down from fighting what she says is a fraudulent foreclosure.

“I’m not afraid. Let them throw me in jail,” she said. “I’m old and sick, and I got no place to go.”

Bonelli is 76, can no longer walk and has cancer. While talking as she sat on the front porch, she removed two rubber bands wrapped around an Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds box. She lifted the lid, revealing dozens of containers of her medications. One for high blood pressure, others were for heart and lung problems. The stress of the foreclosure and eviction have made her health problems worse. She couldn’t attend the last court date because she had severe chest pain.

“You can’t eat. You can’t sleep,” said Bonelli. “It’s been terrible.”

Bonelli says she paid a lawyer $2,500 upfront to fight the foreclosure, but instead of petitioning to get the case thrown out, he went along with the foreclosure and then dropped her case. Her attorneys later told the Reporter that by the time they took her case, there was not much that could be done.

As a result, her case went through the system quickly, instead of taking months or even years like many Illinois foreclosures.

Bonelli connected with the Communities United group through an old neighbor, Sabrina Morey, when they were at the local currency exchange. Morey, who is a member of the group, calls Bonelli her “adopted grandmother.”

When Morey heard about what was going on with her neighbor’s home, she was determined to help her “grandmother” fight.

Bank officials have told Bonelli that it was “too late” to stop the foreclosure, even though she says the money was always there in her bank account and she has contacted the bank to try to pay several times, to no avail. She also attempted to get a loan modification to avoid foreclosure, but it was denied. Morey says the bank could choose to stop the foreclosure if they wanted to, but haven’t.

“It’s never too late,” said Morey. “I think that’s a bunch of crap.”

Burns, the Communities United volunteer, said that while Bonelli’s specific circumstances aren’t common, many other homeowners have been foreclosed upon in error, but banks are reluctant to stop proceedings.

“It defies reason that banks would rather continue foreclosing than admit wrongdoing, but federal programs to prevent foreclosure have not adequately addressed the substantial incentives that mortgage servicers have to foreclose rather than negotiate,” said Burns.

And now that Fannie Mae owns the home, it’s even more difficult to negotiate.

Burns said that Bonelli’s case is part of a national campaign to clean up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac practices.

“All across the country, there are cases like Mary’s where Fannie and Freddie are blocking negotiations that would allow a homeowner to remain in their home,” she said.

Burns pointed to a recent case in Springfield, Mass. where Fannie Mae decided to negotiate with a homeowner for a potential buyback deal, rather than evict them, after the homeowner staged an eviction blockade.

Bonelli is grateful to Communities United for giving her the idea to fight for her home. Through the entire process of foreclosure, she’s felt alone, but not now.

As the crowd dispersed, they continued to chant, yelling “Who’s house? Mary’s House!”

“My house!” shouted Bonelli, her voice a bit hoarse, but a smile on her face.

Blog Posts, Infographics

A Primer: Illinois teens in the juvenile justice system

We’ve been talking a lot about teens in the juvenile justice system since Angela Caputo’s great investigation, Minor Misconduct, came out this month.

But maybe you, like me, don’t know much about how teens are treated in Illinois’ system. Angela helped me wade through the issue, and I created this infographic as a primer for those of us who are a bit unfamiliar with how teens are charged, sentenced and punished when the commit a crime, depending on their age.

JJ-infographic-final

This post was originally published on Nov. 30, 2012 at Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts

Illinois may have more poor folks than we think

How many poor people are there in Illinois?

It depends on how you count.

Illinois is one of 14 states where a new way of measuring poverty reveals that more of our residents are poor. The Census Bureau recently put out a report (pdf) on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, a new way of calculating the poverty line that was released in 2010. By that measure, Illinois’ poverty rate is 15 percent, more than one point higher than the standard poverty measure, which says 13.9 percent of our citizens are poor.

The new measure is called supplemental because it supplements what we already know. The old-school poverty measure is the one used to calculate who gets government benefits like food stamps.

If you go by the current measure, the poverty line for 2011 for a family of four is $22,350. Under the new measure, the national poverty line for a family with a mortgage is $25,703 and $25,222 for a renter. For the Chicago metro region, those numbers get pushed even higher — $27,130 for owners and $26,595 for renters.

Why the difference? Because the new poverty measure takes into account a lot more variables than the old one.

The standard poverty measure was developed in the early ‘60s .It assumes food costs to be about a third of a family’s budget, so it takes what it costs to feed a family the bare necessities and multiplies it by three.

That made sense when food was the greatest expense a family faced. But that’s just not the case anymore. The current measure doesn’t factor in costs like transportation or child care, or take into account geographic differences in the cost of living.

Enter the supplemental measure. It figures in additional costs families today are dealing with, and it counts programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance toward a family’s income.

In a report released this month, the Census Bureau examined each state and compared the poverty rate calculated by the current measure to the new one. Ten states saw no significant difference between the measures. Another 26 states had lower rates of poverty under the new measure. And 14, including Illinois, had more poor folks.

So why is our poverty rate higher?

One probable factor is housing costs, says Dan Lesser, director of economic security at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Cities such as Chicago have higher housing costs which likely pushes our poverty line number up a bit.

Another might be our large Hispanic population, Lesser says, many of whom are immigrants. Immigrants have a poverty rate about seven percent higher under the new measure.

The new measure also doesn’t count one of Illinois’ biggest programs to help the poor: child care subsidies. Our rate might go down if it factored in the money we pay to help low-income families with child care.

Lesser says the supplemental measure isn’t necessarily better, but it is more complete.

“It gives us a little more information, which is always good, but it doesn’t do anything radical,” said Lesser. “The most important thing is that it does reward states that are taking measure to alleviate hardship.”

But despite the fact that it gives us a clearer picture of poverty, the supplemental measure won’t become the official measure any time soon. Doing so, says Lesser, would really shake things up when it comes to federal funding.

“It would be a huge political issue. You’d be taking huge amounts of funding away from some places and allocating it to others,” said Lesser.

So until it becomes politically palatable, the supplemental poverty measure will remain just supplemental, quietly lurking in census reports and my wonky blog posts from The Chicago Reporter.

This post was originally published on Nov 29., 2012 at Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts

The real nanny diaries: Domestic workers struggle with no minimum wage and poor working conditions

No minimum wage, no overtime pay and working ’round the clock? It may sound illegal, but it’s perfectly legit when it comes to domestic workers. Nannies, housekeepers and caregivers don’t enjoy the basic labor rights the rest of us have, and a new report shows just how much they’re suffering because of it.

The average live-in nanny makes $6.76 an hour. Half of them worked long hours without breaks and a quarter were allowed less than 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep. On average, domestic workers make $10 and nearly a quarter of them make less than their state’s minimum wage. These are just a few of the stats released in Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, released Tuesday by the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and researched by the University of Illinois in Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development and DataCenter.

What I found most interesting is why these disparities in labor rights came to be. According to the report, laws like the National Labor Standards Act exclude domestic workers and farm hands from their protections. So do Illinois laws and most other states as well. Why? Because the NLSA was passed in the 1930s, and in order to get the votes needed to pass Congress, lawmakers excluded domestic and agricultural workers from labor protections to get the votes of Southern politicians, the report explains. Who did those jobs in the South? Black people. By excluding those professions, Southern officials could ensure that the black labor force couldn’t form a union and demand better conditions.

So, the law was drafted that way specifically to keep minority citizens from getting too much economic power, and it’s never been amended.

And since domestic workers are still primarily women of color, the law reinforces long-standing economic disparities. A racist law still creating racial inequity.

Sounds like it’s time for change.

This post was originally published on Nov. 28, 2012 at Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts, Housing Reporting

Lakeview shedding affordable housing units: an interview with reporter and activist Bob Zuley

Chicago Muckrakers is taking a look at affordable housing in the Lakeview neighborhood, specifically single room occupancy buildings or hotels that often function as the housing of last resort for working-poor in the area. The neighborhood has seen these SRO buildings closed and transformed into high-end housing one-by-one for the past few years. Now, only one remains. Reporter Bob Zuley with the Inside-Booster has been covering this problem for the last few years. He sat down with me to discuss the issue. 

Megan: Why did you start covering affordable housing in Lakeview?

Bob Zuley: I’ve been here in Lakeview since 2001. I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, born and raised in hillside. After high school went in the army, and I moved back to Chicago in 1980. Last year, I approached the editor at the Inside Booster about  the closing of the Bellair and Sheffield house hotels. He said, “That story has legs. Run with it.”

I write a lot about development and housing. I think it’s important to raise awareness – to shame our elected leaders into being more proactively engaged.

Megan: What are SRO hotels? Who lives there and why are they important?

Bob: SROs are single room occupancy buildings. Most of them here are old hotels that now operate as private rental buildings. It’s housing. It’s affordable and accessible housing stock that maintains diversity in the community.  People can pay a certain amount per week or per month to live there. They’re paying for it. They’re not getting anything for free. The people who live there are mostly local workforce – people who work at hospitals, security guards, food stores, baristas, streetwise vendors, taxi drivers. The local service industry. It’s where they can afford to live that’s close to their jobs.

One of the benefits for the tenants is that you can move in right away. You don’t need furniture. There are no utility bills. Some people stay there for 30 years and some are there for three weeks.

It’s a very viable and recognized housing stock . Other cities have taken concrete steps to preserve and improve SRO housing stock. Chicago’s not a very proactive city in that regard. The developers have the inside track,  and the city isn’t lifting a finger.

Megan: What have been the problems with SRO housing stock in Chicago?
Bob: The owners who have had SROs haven’t always looked out for the best interest of the residents. There have been a lot of code violations and building problems. The folks who live in these buildings, they’re not complaining about it. They’re very accepting of where they live. They want to keep them.

The problem is management and upkeep. None of us want to live in an area where if there’s an SRO that’s not well managed. We don’t want vagrants, trash, people urinating, and drinking. It’s up to the building management to run responsible operations. People living around SROs in Lakeview have complained about them, but what they’re really complaining about is bad management and upkeep. That doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s a tremendous stigma about it. None of the public officials have any real understanding of why SROs are important. These buildings have been in the community for years and years and years. The neighbors seem to accept it until it’s in the news. There’s no one defending them.

Megan: How many SROs are still open in Lakeview?

Bob: We’re just losing everything. Many have been closed down, bought out. There’s one hotel left up here. The Chateau, and there’s so much public pressure to close it.  We know the owner is already selling his other properties to Jamie Purcell, who owns BJB properties. He has properties in properties Millennium Park Plaza downtown, 5,000 rental units in the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. He also owns the Beyond the Ivy Rooftop club.

Megan: How many SROs has Purcell bought? What is he doing with them?
Bob: He’s bought four buildings – the Belair, the Ambers, the Abbot and Sheffield House.  He’s putting a lot of money into them. All of his properties are existing buildings – existing rental unit buildings that he gut rehabs.

He pulled one over on us. We were pushing for the buildings to stay SROs, and he did re-license them as SROs. But he’s gut rehabbing them, and they’re going to be like boutique SROs with wood floors and granite counter tops. The former residents will never be able to afford to stay there. It’ll probably be rented to young urban professionals, people just out of school with good jobs.

Megan:What has been done with some of the other SROs that have been vacated in the last few years?

Bob: Some of them have been turned into condos, and some given to social service agencies to use for their causes.

The Diplomat, at Belmont and Sheffield, was given to Thresholds, and it’ll be reopened as 51 units of housing for the severely mentally ill. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t replace the independent housing that was lost.  People who lived in SROs didn’t have to meet any existing criteria or in a program.

There was another big one, the Viceroy hotel at Ashland and Washington. It’s a big building, built int he 1920s. It was sold to a local church and now the building is being renovated with a grant. I understand it’s going to be housing for women released from the department of corrections. Again, a good use, but it’s still a loss of independent housing.
Megan: You said the Chateau Hotel is the only one left. What’s going to happen to it?

Bob: There are a lot of neighborhood complaints about people hanging out in front of the buildings. Some people say that it became sort of a dumping ground for a social service agency – that they put people there without support who had mental health or substance abuse issues. There’s been a bunch of community meetings, and the alderman, [46th ward alderman James] Cappellman, the perception was that he was going to come in and close it down. But he’s stated outright that it’s not his intention to close down the Chateau. He says he wants to see it improved.

But we got a notice that the building is going to housing court this month. What will happen? We just don’t know.

This post was originally published on Nov. 16, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts

The poor should just save, right? It’s not that simple

Short on cash? A new study shows that it might keep you from saving for the future.

A series of experiments released in Science magazine took students from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Chicago and asked them to play games — Angry Birds, Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud. The students were divided into two groups — “poor”, where players were given less opportunity and less time to play the game, and “rich”, where players had more.

The experiments showed that the “poor” kids got shortsighted — more focused on the present problem and less on the future, and more willing to borrow from their future selves in order to make it in the present.

“It’s kind of striking that when you take people from the Princeton University community and put them in a situation where there is a shortfall of resources, they behave just like people who have been out of work for some time,” said Anuj Shah, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago. “Is it something about being poor? Or is it something about being in a situation of scarcity?”

Shah says the results could explain why people use payday loans, even though they end up costing more in the long run, or don’t save a little bit of money or even make time to read to their child everyday. Compared to the demands of the present, investing in the future is vague and intangible. And for some, Shah says, current problems demand so much of their attention that there’s just no resources left when it comes to thinking about the future, even if they wanted to.

It’s an interesting study, especially in light of the common admonishment that poor people should just learn to save, just like the rich. Read more about the study in the Post-Gazette, or get the full study from Science Magazine.

This post was originally published on Nov. 9, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts

Poverty and depression: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Are you sad because you’re poor or poor because you’re sad?

We don’t really know. But a new Gallup Wellbeing report on chronic health problems shows that Americans living in poverty are nearly twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, and more likely to suffer from a host of other ailments — asthma, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Two health problems on the list seemed to be diagnosed at the same rate whether you’re poor, middle class or affluent — high cholesterol and cancer. But Gallup notes that people in poverty might just be less likely to be diagnosed with either because they have less access to health care.  Previous research has shown that people in poverty are more likely to die if they’re diagnosed with cancer, often because they find out about the disease later when it’s progressed further. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that if all people between age 25 and 64 got cancer at the rate that affluent white people do, the number of cancer deaths could be reduced by 37 percent.

But back to depression.

“The interplay between depression and other chronic diseases is unclear, and the causal direction of the relationship between depression and poverty itself is unclear,” notes Gallup writer Alyssa Brown. “Depression could lead to poverty in some circumstances, poverty could lead to depression in others, or some third factor could be causing both. Regardless, it is clear that those in poverty are twice as likely as those who aren’t to have ever been diagnosed with a potentially debilitating illness and one that could be impeding them from getting out of poverty.”

A 2006 Northwestern study cited being poor or being a minority as major factors for depression, as well as being older, not having private insurance, and being unemployed.   The Urban Institute has shown that more than half of children being raised in poverty had moms who were depressed, leading to poorer mental and physical development among their children and even putting them at risk for depression later in life.

So if people in poverty are more likely to be depressed, are less likely to get help for their depression and more likely to pass on depression to their children, maybe there’s not just one chicken or egg, but a continuous cycle of being poor and poor health.

How do we break it?

This post was originally published on Nov. 7, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, One Story Up

Making the Invisible Visible

IMG_2214-thumb-300x225-18814I didn’t even see her, sitting on the West side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, but Mark did.

She was young, small, sitting with her orange tabby cat next to one of the bridges tall sculpted posts. Hundreds of people walking by almost blocked out here small, cardboard sign.

We stopped, and Mark knelt beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

Mark Horvath does this for a living. Well, sort of. He runs a site called Invisible People and travels the country, talking to homeless people and documenting their stories. He used to be homeless himself, 14 years ago on the streets of Hollywood after battling addiction. He now dedicates his life to helping people really see the homeless we walk by every day.

People like Sandra.

Sandra was sitting on the bridge because she lost her job. She moved here a few months ago, just her and her cat, and was doing alright until she got laid off. Now, she doesn’t have any money and no place to stay. She’s trying to save up enough to get back home to Seattle, but it’s hard to save money living on the street. She panhandles to raise $40 for a hotel room every night, but there isn’t much extra to save for a ticket home.

“It’s hard. If it weren’t for him,” she says, pointing to her cat, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mark gave her a pair of new, clean socks, and we moved on.

He stopped in Chicago for two days on his tour around the U.S. He’s been to Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and many more cities, just over the last two months. He let me follow him on Saturday on his journey to meet the homeless in Chicago.

It’s barely 20 feet, just the other side of the bridge, before we meet the next person.

Reggie’s been homeless for years, since his mother and brother died. After their death, his grief deadened him, making it hard for him to do anything. He lives on the street now, and he says he doesn’t even want to be here.

His pain was so visible. He’s wounded he could barely raise his head to talk to us.

I held his hand for a minute. Maybe a little longer than you should hold a stranger’s hand.

When I got on the train that morning to go down and meet Mark, I had a song stuck in my head. It was an odd song, sort of came in out of the blue. Cheery and sunny, I imagined Doris Day waltzing around a bedroom, putting her little boy to sleep.

I still had it stuck in my head when we went to meet AnnMarie. Mark had connected with AnnMarie over Twitter.Even though she’s homeless, she uses twitter and facebook to keep up with friends and family, to express herself and her frustration with a lonely world.

We sat and ate together, and AnnMarie told me about the abuse in her past that caused her PTSD and how it keeps her from holding down a job and making a more normal life for herself. She has two kids, 15 and 9, who she almost never sees.
She has a picture of them on her phone from a few years ago – smiling and waving at her. She’s applied at several supportive housing places, but they’ve turned her down because of her PTSD. She’s working on getting a place to stay and getting good health care to deal with her problems, but it isn’t easy. She takes the bus and the train for hours and hours each day, looking for someone who will be able to help her.

Often times, she comes downtown, just to spend the day, like today. She walks around and looks at things. Says hi to a few homeless people she’s made friends with.

Living on the street has been hard on her, especially because of the way men often treat her. Homeless men can be aggressive when they see a woman alone, she says, and their advances often trigger her most violent and hurtful memories from her childhood.

Mark and I walked back, he to his hotel, me to the train. He had given Annmarie a little money, something he doesn’t normally do. He does this for a living, talking to people day-in, day-out, but AnnMarie really got to him.

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.

This story was originally published at One Story Up on Nov. 21, 2009.