Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting

As Hotel Chateau closes, couple fears becoming homeless

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

The Bible’s entire 23rd Psalm is written in marker, framed on the yellowed stucco wall next to the red flyswatter hanging from a nail. Cans of food line the shelf in the tiny coat closet, a makeshift pantry.

The psalm is a reminder to keep going when times get tough, said Curtis Horton, 48. He and his partner, Henrietta Riley, 54, are residents of the Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy hotel in Lakeview. And for them, times have been tough and quite possibly could get even tougher. They recently found out that the hotel has been sold and will be emptied and rehabbed.

“We read it for strength,” Horton said of the psalm on the wall. “It’s something to keep us going and keep us focused on making it in the world. It’s a message for us to keep the strength.”

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” –Psalm 23:2

Horton and Riley have lived at the Chateau for about a year. They’ve bounced around from place to place for the last few years, even moving in with Riley’s daughter in her Section 8 apartment for awhile. But when that building was unexpectedly sold, they ended up here, one of the few remaining SROs in Lakeview.

The day they came to the Chateau, there was one vacant room, but it wouldn’t be available until repairs were made. They spent the day in a nearby Starbucks and the night on the street. The next day, they moved in.

“This is my home,” said Riley. “It’s the only place I have to call home besides a shopping cart.”

“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his names’ sake.” –Psalm 23:3

Horton and Riley don’t mind that the Chateau is run down. They wave off the building’s code violations, saying it’s an affordable place to stay in a good area. Riley says she loves the neighborhood’s culture and diversity, but mostly, they’re grateful for its safety.

“Try living on the West Side in Austin where you have to look over your shoulder any minute, waiting for someone to jump you or rob you. I’ve been hit over the head, stabbed,” said Riley.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me.” –Psalm 23:4

But now that the Chateau has been sold and will be gutted and rehabbed, residents fear it will be reopened as higher-end studio apartments like other former SROs in the neighborhood. Horton and Riley are scared. They don’t know of anywhere to live that they can afford.

Riley worked as an insurance evaluator for 25 years, but then had a brain aneurysm. She’s been on disability ever since. Horton, a former cook, is now unemployed, but gets a $400 check each month from a trust his grandmother left him.

“It’s even hard to get in a shelter nowadays,” said Horton.

At the Chateau’s housing-court hearing on Jan. 29, inspectors complained that trash chutes were clogged up to the second and third floors, with garbage spilling into the hallways. The fire alarm system isn’t reliable, and the door to the elevator doesn’t open ll the way. But the couple’s apartment is neat and clean. They take pride in it.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” –Psalm 23:6

The latest housing-court hearing really shook up Horton and Riley. They just keep repeating the same thing:

“I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

This post was originally published on Feb. 18, 2013 on Chicago Muckrakers.

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.

Enterprise Stories, Investigative Reporting

Dwindling SROs: Hotel Chateau residents fear they’ll soon be homeless

Margaret and Tony don’t have much, but they get by. Sometimes, Tony jokes, their 12-year-old cat, Jason, eats better than them.

Margaret’s rough hands look like they’ve been scrubbed clean, almost to the point of being painful. She has the kind of manners that make you think she was brought up by a very attentive mother—please, thank you and pardon me.

She manages polite conversation, even though she’s terribly worried. Tony is too. They live at Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy building in East Lakeview, and it’s recently been sold. If the Chateau goes the way of the handful of other SRO buildings nearby, the couple will soon be priced out.

Tony and Margaret’s names have been changed to protect their identity because they fear they’ll be kicked out of the building. Together, they survive on $1,066 a month, with each getting $533 in disability checks. Margaret has epilepsy. Tony has a hearing problem. They’ve been married for 12 years, throughout which they’ve moved from place to place in Chicago every couple of years as the rent became unaffordable.

They don’t love living at the Chateau, but it’s a roof over their head. When Tony talks about his neighbors, many of whom are drug addicts and alcoholics, he hesitates to bad-mouth them, knowing they need a place to live too.

“Let’s just say that some of our neighbors leave something to be desired,” he says.

What will happen to Margaret, Tony and their more undesirable neighbors? Local residents are trying to figure that out.

Their Day In Court

At a Tuesday court hearing, residents found out that the Chateau will be vacated and gutted. The hearing was on the building’s code violations, but residents had hoped to learn more about the sale.

In fact, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman had previously said more information about the owners would be revealed at the court hearing. But on Tuesday, Cappleman instead declined to state the buyer’s name, saying he had promised the new owner not to reveal the identity.

The Chicago Reporter asked Cappleman why he would make such a promise, given that Chateau residents, his constituents, are anxious about the building’s fate. He waved his hand and said, “There’s something called the First Amendment.”

Cappleman also said he wasn’t sure when the owner’s name would be disclosed. He emphasized the Chateau’s current condition was hazardous to its residents.

“My focus right now is on saving people’s lives,” said Cappleman. “My first priority is that the residents are safe.”

The Chateau has been in housing court ever since an inspection in the fall found numerous building violations, including problems with fire escapes, smoke alarms and trash piling up in hallways and garbage chutes.

A new corporation named 3838 North Broadway, the Chateau’s address, was established on Jan. 3, according to the Illinois Corporations Database, which is part of the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s not clear who owns that business, though the database listed attorney Gerard Walsh as its registered agent. Walsh did not answer his phone or return voicemails seeking comment. The attorney who represented the corporation in court, Mitchell Asher, declined to comment on the identity of the building’s new owner.

Real estate mogul Jamie Purcell of BJB Properties has already purchased four former SROs in the neighborhood–the Ambers, the Bel-Air, the Sheffield and the Abbott. All of those buildings have been vacated, rehabbed and are being reopened as high-end studio apartment buildings that are not affordable for Margaret and Tony, who pay $575 a month at the Chateau. Purcell did not return several voicemails the Reporter left at his Park Ridge office.

Searching For Home

Meanwhile, Margaret and Tony are looking for another place to live, but they are not too optimistic. Most nonprofits or programs that have low-income housing don’t allow couples to live together. Or they have a long waiting list.

“We are on a number of waiting lists,” says Margaret.

When they hear that neighborhood residents are afraid of the people who live at the Chateau, they sympathize. They’re often bothered by their neighbors too.

But among the 138 rooms at the Chateau, they say, are people like themselves—working-class people, poor people, ordinary people who do not have any other place to go.

Chester Kropidlowski is one of those in the neighborhood who’s bothered by Chateau patrons. Some of them, he says, panhandle in front of the building; others loiter there too or at a bus shelter nearby. Neighbors feel the building’s residents contribute to crime in the area.

But Kropidlowski also recognizes that there are people whom he described as “poor souls” living at the Chateau and causing no trouble. He contends that the big problem is how the building is managed.

“The same person has owned it for many, many years,” says Kropidlowski, president of the board of the local neighborhood group, East Lake View Neighbors. “Apparently, the person lives in a gated community in Florida, impossible to contact, and he has only responded to concerns in the past when he had no other choice.”

Kropidlowski is referring to Jack Gore, who has owned other troubled Chicago SROs. In 2008, Gore relinquished ownership of the Diplomat Hotel, also in Lakeview, when the building began to rack up fines from code violations. The business number for Gore at Cedar Hotel has been disconnected. Gore’s lawyer, Leon Wexler, confirmed Gore no longer owns the Chateau, but he wouldn’t comment further.

A Safe Haven, A Safe Community

It’s clear the Chateau isn’t the neighborhood’s favorite, but Kropidlowski hopes it can be turned into something he and others would be “proud to have in the community.”

In essence, Kropidlowski, Margaret and Tony all want the same thing–a safe Hotel Chateau and a safe neighborhood. It’s just that getting it will likely mean Margaret and Tony can no longer live there.

“They’ll straighten it up, and then they’re going to charge a lot more money,” says Margaret.

Sreya Sarkar has noticed the decline of available SRO housing in the neighborhood in her job as education and advocacy director at Lakeview Pantry, a food pantry that sits across the street from the Chateau. She estimates that Lakeview has lost at least 400 affordable units over the last two years.

Working at the pantry, she gets to meet plenty of Chateau residents like Margaret and Tony.

“They’re good citizens,” says Sarkar. “They don’t cause trouble. They don’t have substance abuse issues. They want to live peacefully there. They just don’t have another place to go to because other SROs have closed down.”

A local group that advocates for affordable housing, Lakeview Action Coalition, is hoping it can convince the hotel’s new owner to keep at least part of the building affordable. Bharathi Gunasekaran, a housing organizer with the coalition, says many of the Chateau’s tenants come from other places nearby that have closed.

“A lot of people have moved from one SRO to another as they’ve been closing,” says Gunasekaran.

Gunasekaran was upset to hear that the building would be vacated.

“Once the residents move out, they have no chance of moving back in,” she said.

After the court hearing, residents of the Chateau surrounded Cappleman, questioning him about the building’s future and their own. When Cappleman replied that he was working with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services to help residents find housing, all Margaret could do was sigh.

“We’re going to end up on the street,” she said.

First posted at Chicago Muckrakers on Jan. 31, 2013

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.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, Maps

Mapping lost housing: Lakeview’s disappearing SRO hotels

I recently got word from Bob Zuley, a reporter and affordable housing advocate in Lakeview, that another single room occupancy hotel was closing–the Abbott– leaving its 37 residents scrambling to find housing before the year is done.

I interviewed Zuley a few weeks back about his years of reporting on these single room occupancy hotels, or SROs. They’re old-school residential housing that allows people to rent a single furnished room by the day, week or month. Although a lot of neighborhood residents don’t like them, SROs provide affordable housing for people who work as cab drivers or store clerks and often operate as the housing of last resort for people on the margins.

Anyway, back to the Abbott. The building was bought in August by BJB Properties, owned by Chicago real estate mogul Jamie Purcell. He has bought a handful of Lakeview SROs–the Ambers, the Bel-Air, and Sheffield House– and is in the process of converting them to upscale rental housing. The BJB property website advertises shiny units with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, much nicer than it used to be, but no longer marketed to the buildings’ former clientele. Purcell didn’t my return calls seeking comment.

The Abbott is still open, temporarily. Bob says residents told him that rent was jacked up $10 a day a few months back, making it much harder for poor people to afford to stay. The remaining 37 residents have been told they’ll need to find a new place to live by the end of the year, when the building will be closed for renovations.

When I sat down with Bob, he had loads of information on Lakeview’s dwindling SROs. I compiled it into this Google map, complete with pictures of the buildings, information on its current status and links to stories about the building. Take a look:

I’m working on some more data and maps of SROs citywide, plus more about the Chateau, the one remaining Lakeview SRO that hasn’t been sold or closed. Stay tuned.

Data Analysis, Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting, Investigative Reporting, Long-Form Journalism

The link between lead poisoning and underperforming students

With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?

Patricia Robinson recalls a time when she fondly watched her son, Michael, then a toddler, sit in the windowsill of her Englewood home, completely engrossed. Matchbox car in hand, he would run the toy back and forth over the brown painted surface, making little vrooms and beep-beeps as he played.

Ten years later, Robinson’s warmth for that moment has long faded. That was where it started—where she believes Michael ingested the lead-filled dust that poisoned him, leaving him with lifelong learning disabilities. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” Robinson says. “It’s taken over my life.”

Doctors, organic food, costly tutors, special ed teachers—Robinson has tried whatever she can to help her son get ahead, despite the difficulties he’s faced because of lead poisoning. But Michael’s struggles to learn, to pay attention in school, and to get along with other children continue.

While there’s no doubt that the number of children affected by lead poisoning has dropped precipitously since the 70s (when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline), Chicago has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the U.S.

A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests.

Lead paint, which was banned in 1978, is still present in thousands of older homes and apartment buildings across Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides, where the housing stock is older. And though lead hazards are clearly identifiable and inexpensive to eradicate, the city’s budget for lead-poisoning prevention has plummeted in recent years.

“Lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems that we know how to solve,” said Anita Weinberg, director of Lead Safe Housing Initiatives at Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University. “We can resolve this problem within a generation, but it’s not a priority for the city.”

As money has dried up, the burden to get the word out has fallen on parents like Robinson. She tells parents about the dangers of lead poisoning every day as she helps Englewood residents obtain health care access and child care through her work at Children’s Home and Aid.

“I try to warn them,” says Robinson, who figured out what happened to her son through bloodwork and environmental tests of their home. “I want to let them know so they won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”

Read more at the Chicago Reader.com…

This story was originally published in the Chicago Reader on Oct. 31, 2012, and was paid for by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust for the Local Reporting Awards Initiative.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Is not accepting voucher holders discrimination or avoiding red tape headaches?

This is the last post in a four-part series about a proposed ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent suburban landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants. The series includes the story of a renter who’s faced such discrimination, as well as perspectives from property owners, realtors and a look at the political challenges facing the ordinance.

Dan Vollman grew up on Chicago’s West Side, raised by a single mom who had trouble paying the rent on time.

Now a landlord himself, he was more than willing to participate in the Section 8 program – the government subsidized program that allows low-income families to rent in the private market at rates they can afford.

“Back in the day, in the 50s and 60s, a divorced woman was ostracized. It was difficult for us to rent,” said Vollman. “I would have thought a subsidy would have helped my mother. She could have gone to school and learned some things to help her get a better job. As it was, she had barely enough time to work to pay the bills.”

Vollman’s been renting to tenants in the voucher program, often referred to as Section 8, for about 30 years in his buildings in Chicago and suburban Cook County. In Oak Park alone, he owns 159 units and about 40 are filled by Section 8 tenants.

“I have a lot of great Section 8 tenants that have become good friends,” Vollman said.

Suburban Cook County is the target of an amendment before the county board that would make it illegal to deny a person the opportunity to rent because their source of income is a Section 8 voucher.

Too Many Bureaucratic Hoops?

While landlords and realtors have complained the program creates hassles for them that cause them to lose money, housing authority officials in Cook County said that’s simply not true. Rich Monocchio, head of the Housing Authority of Cook County, said the perception that the program doesn’t run well is out of date. While apartments have to be inspected before a tenant can sign a lease and the first month’s rent is paid, that process doesn’t take weeks or months anymore.

“I will admit that the inspection process was onerous at one time,” said Monocchio. “I wouldn’t want to wait for my rent for two or three months either while some bureaucracy got its paper work together, but that just isn’t the case anymore.”

Monocchio said since he’s come on board at the housing authority, he has made many changes to ensure the program runs more efficiently. For example, he’s pushed to reduce inspection times to a matter of days and move records online so that landlords can see their results and show improvements they’ve made.

Ed Solan, head of the Oak Park Housing Authority, agreed that the program is well-run and easy to use.

These days landlords get their rent payments through direct deposit, Solan said, so they never get late payments. Solan added that if the program was difficult to deal with, he wouldn’t have over 200 landlords in Oak Park participating.

“Those owners who are participating with us probably have fewer hassles collecting rent than they do with their private tenants,” said Solan. “In many respects, our voucher tenants are more reliable in terms of rent-paying ability, and also I think that there’s lower turnover.”

But those facts haven’t changed everyone’s minds.

An Unpopular Amendment

“There’s a very vociferous opposition to this that’s really not based on the facts,” said Monocchio. “If you don’t like the ordinance, say so, but don’t hide behind falsehoods and things that aren’t true anymore. I think some folks that are opposing this are using the supposed dysfunction of the system as cover.”

Cover for what? Housing advocates say landlords can use the fact that it’s legal to turn away voucher holders to hide real discrimination based on race, familial status or gender.

Because families with vouchers are primarily black, many of them single moms, landlords in affluent areas don’t want to rent to them, said Rob Breymaier, president of the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance, which is behind the amendment.

“In many communities, because of the stereotypes that are out there about what a voucher holder is like or who they are, there is just a reluctance to take part in the program or refusal to take part in the program,” said Breymaier. “We know based on where folks live that it’s happening more often in whiter and more affluent communities than it is in other places.”

And that reluctance has real consequences for people with vouchers, said Breymaier.

“The bulk of kinds of jobs many voucher holders might be able to get –entry level jobs, service jobs– are in Northern Cook County, but most voucher holders live in Western and Southern Cook.” said Breymaier. “The fact that there’s this huge disparity between these communities makes it difficult for people to improve their life situation because they’re segregated away from opportunity.”

Breymaier points out that the Human Rights Ordinance already covers other sources of income and prevents landlords from turning someone away because they’re on disability or unemployment. This amendment would just add housing vouchers to that list.

Limited Living Options

Both Solan and Monocchio said their tenants have a hard time finding places to live, especially in nicer neighborhoods, often searching for several months before finding a landlord who will take them.

But landlord Dan Vollman said even though he likes and supports the program, he understands why some landlords are reluctant to take on voucher tenants.

“It’s more labor intensive. I think that turns off a lot of the other owners,” said Vollman. “If you were an owner and you had a choice – to decide whether you wanted to accept what they tell you to do, you might not. There’s different dynamics there.”

Vollman said the program works for him, but it might be more difficult for smaller landlords. He said many of his voucher tenants are on disability or are retired, so they don’t leave for work and tend to use more utilities. He also has a crew on call 24 hours a day, making it possible for him to comply quickly and easily with building maintenance. He has had problems with some of his tenants, but he says private tenants create problems too.

But overall, he’s glad the program exists, not just for him as a property owner, but for the good of society.

“Just because you’re poor and you only make X amount of dollars,” said Vollman, ”that doesn’t mean they should have to live in the ghetto or a place where they’re going to get hit over the head.”

This post was originally published on Oct. 31, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.