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.

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.

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.

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.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Commissioners divided over outlawing voucher discrimination in Cook County

This is the third 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.

Back in June, Commissioner Jesus Garcia predicted that his legislation to prevent landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants would become law within a few weeks.

But Garcia’s prediction didn’t come true, and the amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance doesn’t look likely to pass anytime soon.

“The legislation barely made it out of committee with only two votes in favor, at this time there are not enough votes to pass the legislation,” Celina Villanueva, outreach coordinator for Commissioner Garcia said Monday.

That’s why the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, along with about 50 other groups in Cook County, started their online petition. So far it’s gotten about 375 signatures.

“We wanted to show the commissioners that there’s broad support for the legislation,” said John Bartlett, director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “We’ve tried to pass it several times through Cook County, and there’s been an attempt on the state to pass it as well. But the realtors always have a strong lobbying arm to prevent it.”

The Illinois Realtors Association has criticized the amendment saying it would restrict landlords’ freedom to participate in a government program.

“Our association members are very concerned over private property rights. It’s what we deal with every day. It’s our business. The program was always sort of traditionally set up to be a voluntary program. You have an option to either be in the Section 8 program, if you wanted not to be, or you’re not in the Section 8 program,” said Jon Broadbrooks, director of communications for the Illinois Realtors Association. “We’re not against Section 8 tenants. We want to make sure the business practice is fair.”

But Villanueva says the issue is about discrimination, not about property rights.

“In regards to the infringement of rights for landlords, they can continue to rent to whomever they want, depending on the criteria they set forth in their selection process,” said Villanueva. “What they should not be able do is unlawfully discriminate against a potential tenant of any kind whether it be race, gender, familiar or source of income.”

While landlords complain that the program subjects them to unfair rules and regulations that hurt their business, Villanueva said Cook County has improved the process to make it easier to participate.

“The Housing Authority of Cook County has streamlined the process and has made it more efficient and quicker. Improvements have been made to ensure the process doesn’t take that long,” said Villanueva. “From start to finish, meaning that from the point of attending an orientation session to the renting of a unit to a voucher holder, the current process has been funneled down to a matter of weeks.”

When the amendment came in front of the Human Relations Committee this July, two commissioners — Robert Steele and Larry Suffredin — voted for the amendment, while Commissioner Pete Silvestri voted against. Two others, Deborah Sims and John Fritchey, voted “present,” meaning they were at the hearing, but did not vote for or against it. The remaining commissioners on the committee, Earlean Collins and Edwin Reyes, were absent.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle favors the amendment, said spokesman Owen Kilmer, but that it is on hold until after the County has tackled the budget issue.

“President Preckwinkle strongly supports the ordinance, and following the passage of the budget, will work with Commissioner Garcia and issue stakeholders on the issue to resolve any differences and pass it,” said Kilmer.

This story was originally published on Oct. 5, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Landlords say vouchers cause business headaches they shouldn’t be forced to take on

This is the second 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.

When Bill Planek’s property management company took over 927 S. Wesley Ave. in Oak Park, he didn’t renew Gale Riley’s lease.

It wasn’t because she was late on her rent, in fact she’d never missed a payment. It also wasn’t because she was messy, noisy or damaged the apartment.

It was that she paid her rent using a subsidized housing voucher. Riley wasn’t alone. All voucher tenants staying on Greenplan Management’s property were given 30-day notices.

“It’s nothing against the people and their financial position,” Planek said. “In a perfect world, this would all be easy, but it’s not a perfect world and it always ends up that the property manager ends up holding the bag.”

The Cook County board is considering amending their Human Rights Ordinance to make what Planek did illegal – turning away renters because they rely on a housing voucher. But Planek says the amendment would make it very difficult for him to operate his business because of the administrative headaches the program creates.

“If the program was better administrated, a better partnership, it would be easier to participate,” said Planek.

With a housing voucher, Planek explained, he would sign a lease with the tenant and the housing authority – detailing how much rent each party would pay him and the terms of the lease. But if the tenant violates their lease – stops paying their rent, damages the apartment or has too many people living in the apartment – the lease is null and void.

If he contacted the housing authority about the lease violation, the tenant’s housing voucher would be terminated. Planek would no longer receive a rent payment from the housing authority and would be stuck with a tenant who he knows can’t afford the rent. The rules, he says, are set by the government, a large bureaucracy he can’t negotiate with or easily get answer from.

“I’m dealing with a third party that is huge, distanced from me, doesn’t care about me, and now doesn’t care what happens,” said Planek. “If you can avoid having that third party to deal with, why wouldn’t you?”

Other landlords echo Planek’s statements about the administrative headaches of the voucher program. Dan Schermerhorn, owner of Schermerhorn and Co. Real Estate Management in Evanston, spoke at a hearing in July on the proposed amendment in front of the Cook County board. He says if the law is put in place, he would have to hire an additional employee just to deal with the increased paperwork and regulations of the program.

“Anytime you’re getting money from the government, there are strings attached to the money, which I absolutely agree with,” said Schermerhorn. “By making it mandatory [to accept vouchers] you no longer give the property owner the chance to decide whether the strings attached are worth the money they receive.”

Schermerhorn said normally, when a tenant signs a lease, they pay their first month’s rent up front. But with voucher tenants, he says sometimes the first month’s rent doesn’t come for several months,

Schermerhorn said the perception that he’s discriminating against tenants isn’t true. He hasn’t had problems with voucher tenants – just with the program.

“If they continue to improve the program, more landlords will voluntarily participate rather than being forced to participate,” said Schermerhorn.

Schermerhorn is a member of the Illinois Association of Realtors, which has come out against the proposal. Jon Broadbrooks, director of communications for the association, said the voucher program should remain voluntary.

“Fundamentally, it comes down to a property rights issue. Should you be forced to take part in a program?” he said.

Broadbrooks said it’s not about discriminating against poor tenants.

“I think there’s been a lot made of people trying to stigmatize Section 8. The majority of Section 8 people are people who need the assistance to make ends meet. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be bad renters by any means,” said Broadbrooks.

He said his members are not trying to discriminate, but are worried about their businesses.

“The conversation has come from the money side: Am I going to lose money because I have to go through bureaucratic loopholes?”

Planek says he understands the concerns of housing advocates and wants to be able to provide all different kinds of people with safe and decent housing. He’s signed many leases with nonprofit agencies like Catholic Charities, housing people who were formerly homeless and getting services through the organization. But in those cases, the organization signs the lease and will keep paying if something goes wrong.

“The government describes the program as a three-legged stool–the housing authority, the tenant and the property owner,” said Planek. “But if one or two of those parties leaves the agreement–well, that stool can’t stand up.”

This story was originally published on Oct. 4, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Should Cook County outlaw discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders?

This is the first 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 this post, 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.

Gale Riley had lived at 927 S. Wesley Ave. in Oak Park for three years when the new management company sent her a notice saying her lease wouldn’t be renewed.

Riley checked with other tenants in the building and found that everyone who was being asked to leave had one thing in common: they all paid their rent through a housing choice voucher.

A housing choice voucher, often referred to as a Section 8 voucher, allows low-income families to pay 30 percent of their income to a private landlord, who then receives a government subsidy for the rest of the rent. But not all landlords take them.

The words “No Section 8” are commonly mentioned in rental listings in suburban Cook County, but an umbrella group is trying to change that. The group, which consists of more than 50 organizations, has started an online petition to support an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants with a subsidized voucher.

Riley said she’s a model tenant and didn’t deserve to be turned away because she has a voucher.

“I paid my rent on time. I don’t make complaints,” said Riley. “My credit is fine. It’s not like they even checked to see. They just told me that they don’t take it.”

Riley’s former landlord, Bill Planek of Greenplan Management, confirmed that he doesn’t accept vouchers in his buildings, but points to problems with with the administration of the voucher program, not tenants, as the reason.

It’s tenants like Riley who made John Bartlett, director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, realize that something needed to be done. Discriminating against voucher holders – legally referred to as “source of income” discrimination – is already outlawed in the city of Chicago and has been since 1998. But in the suburbs, the practice is alive and well.

“You still find them out in the county – ads that say ‘No vouchers’ or ‘No 8’s’,” said Bartlett. “Source of income discrimination may be the largest source of discrimination that the city deals with.”

Bartlett said the housing voucher program was designed to help low-income people rent housing in more affluent communities, instead of concentrating poor families in high poverty neighborhoods. But when landlords in nicer neighborhoods can just turn voucher tenants away, it goes against the purpose of the program.

Riley said it’s been difficult to find a unit in Oak Park, but she was determined to stay in a safe area.

“The people that really need these places can’t even get them. We shouldn’t have to go to the real high poverty areas just to get housing,” said Riley.

That’s seemingly why the majority of voucher holders end up living in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and crime, said Bartlett.

“It really does relegate people to the kind of communities that have high poverty, which also tend to be mostly black or Latino,” said Bartlett. “Landlords there will take them because they can often times get a higher rent than they otherwise would be able to.”

Bartlett said making sure the program works is important because housing policy has been moving toward a voucher-based system in the private market, rather than traditional public housing, where government directly owns and manages properties.

“If that’s the path that we’re taking, then we need to make sure that people have opportunities to move in any area that they want so that they’re close to jobs and good transportation,” said Bartlett.

Bartlett points to a study by the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing that showed families with vouchers face significant discrimination in the rental market. The study had testers pose as potential tenants trying to rent units in different areas of the city with a subsidized voucher. When testers made calls on apartment listings throughout the city, 46 percent were told that the property owner didn’t accept vouchers, despite it being illegal to do so. When the testers focused on more affluent neighborhoods, 55 percent of landlords illegally discriminated against voucher holders.

The study found that race also played a role. Nearly 20 percent of property owners told a minority tester they didn’t accept vouchers as a form of payment after telling a white tester they would.

Overall, the study estimated that voucher holders were denied access to 70 percent of the units in Chicago that fall within program guidelines. And that’s in an area where they are at least legally protected, unlike suburban County.

Bartlett said vouchers don’t just help families, but they also help the city combat racial and economic segregation.

“If we want to affect segregation, we need to make sure that people have opportunities to move where they want to and where they can – not to just be dictated by whether the landlord says they will accept Section 8,” said Bartlett.

Finding a landlord who would accept her voucher after she was booted from her Oak Park apartment was daunting, said Riley.

“Everybody was turning me down. They were saying.’ You seem like a really nice person, I have this feeling you’ll be a good tenant. We just don’t take it due to bad experiences,’” said Riley. “It took me a long time to find something. Nice places but they weren’t accepting housing vouchers.”

Eventually, she did find a townhouse available for rent and signed a two-year lease. She said she supports the move to ban discrimination against vouchers in Cook County and hopes the amendment will be implemented soon.

“I don’t think we should be judged on just vouchers alone – maybe the person, their history as a tenant,” said Riley. “It really should be a law. Everybody should have equal rights to live where they want to live.”

This story was first published on Oct. 3, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.