Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, One Story Up

A Garden Grows in Cabrini-Green

Community garden along Chicago avenue near Cabrini-GreenSometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her ownndressing, but it wasn’t any good. This week, she’s trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that’s a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it’s unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie’s a long-time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It’s the garden that’s brought them together. It’s what the garden is about.

Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project,several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play

Ms. Jones, who’s 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she’s passed on to all her
kids and any one she’s known: “Wherever you go, get involved in the community.
And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

“Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?” she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only five or six families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It’s a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it’s tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I’ve read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults
come, it’s more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it’s working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren’t here, mixing and learning from each other, where’s the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She’s a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

“This stuff can’t be phony,” Robin says. “You can’t create intimacies where intimacies don’t exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision.”

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. “What makes your place great?” is one of their new initiatives on placemaking – creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places – they think – have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There’s something about a tiny person who doesn’t know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It’s unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it’s also unrealistic to expect that the change we’re looking for – the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people – would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

”This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society,” Robin says.

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes – we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she’s ready to see it grow again.

“I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It’s gonna be good again, and I’m still gonna be here.”

This post was originally published on Sept. 23, 2009 at One Story Up.

Blog Posts, One Story Up

Don’t Fall in the Poverty Trap – You May Never Get Out

I wrote this post in Nov. 2009 and it’s one of my most viewed posts of all time. I think the concept is one that helps people think about poverty and programs that are supposed to help people get out of poverty in a new way. Take a look:

Until you earn about $40,000 a year, you’re pretty much stuck in poverty, an economist’s numbers show.

In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.

Take a look at this story from economist Jeff Liebman, who now works in the Obama Administration.

The poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S.

A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs, etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

Take a look at this chart by economist Clifford Thies, via Greg Mankiw’s blog.

The Dead ZoneFrom the green dot, you can see that earned income rises… for a while. Then there’s this screwy wavy line. That’s the mother making a little more, but earning a little less.

$40,000 a year is about $19 an hour. Over 40 percent of Chicagoans don’t earn that much.

There aren’t that many jobs out there that make $19 an hour. Bank Teller? $13.33 an hour. Office clerk? $15.60. Retail salesperson? $11.80. Security guard? $16.14. (Statistics via Chicago Rehab network).

Our tax incentives work… initially. Then they only serve to hurt people. They say the poor don’t work hard enough, but that single mother sounds like a pretty hard working person to me. The story goes on to say that she got a weekend job, to try to make ends meet. Except after childcare and gas, it didn’t help at all.

So if working harder means people might actually earn less, how is it that we expect people to work harder?

Blog Posts

Poll: Americans say raise taxes on the rich rather than cut programs for the poor

Take from the rich to feed the poor? That’s what looks good to most Americans when it comes to negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that a whopping 69 percent of people approve of President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on Americans making over $250,000 a year. And a majority, 58 percent, disapprove of fixing the country’s financial problems by reducing spending for programs for the poor.

A majority of Americans also disapproved of cutting defense spending (55 percent), raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare (56 percent), and limiting the home mortgage tax deduction (52 percent), all a bit lower than the percentage of people who are against cutting anti-poverty programs.

Incidentally, limiting the home mortgage tax deduction would likely affect those rich folks who people want to tax, not middle-class or poor homeowners. As we’ve mentioned before, most of the $131 billion that the federal government loses in the mortgage interest tax deduction goes to the richest 20 percent of Americans. In fact, the amount the government spends on the mortgage interest tax deduction is more than three and a half times what it spent this year for the entire U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.

So, do you agree with this Pew poll? What’s the best way for America to avoid diving off the fiscal cliff?

Originally posted on Dec. 28, 2012 at Chicago Muckrakers

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.