Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “Even McDonald’s Won’t Hire Me”

Last but not least is Louis99ers-hdre’s story, the first 99er I interviewed. When I look back now, I think of Louise’s struggle as a mom and how terrified I would be not to be able to take care of my child. I hope I’m never there, but if there’s one thing I have learned about interviewing people who have hit rock bottom is that it can happen to anyone. I’m most anxious to catch up with Louise and hear how she is doing. Check back for updates on the 99ers, and read the rest of my series on people who maxed out their unemployment after the Great Recession with Yvonne, Ricky, Susan and Doug.

007-250x187-1When I first heard that unemployment benefits can last up to 99 weeks, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical.

I thought, that’s almost two years of checks. Someone can’t find a job after looking for two years?

Then I heard Louise’s story.

Louise Davies of Boston, Massachusetts had worked in retail for 18 years when she was laid off from Macy’s in 2008. Desperately looking for a job, she just exhausted her 99th week of unemployment.

When a person’s laid off, she normally gets about 26 weeks of unemployment from her state. But in this Great Recession, Congress has authorized additional federal tiers, which add up to 99 total weeks of unemployment benefits. Once a person gets to the fourth tier and is done with her 99 weeks, her benefits are done, no matter her job situation.

That’s where Louise is today. Ninety-nine weeks and no job in sight. She’s not alone — though there aren’t hard numbers yet, an estimated one million people could become “99ers” by the end of 2010. There are between five and six job seekers for every opening, and it is now taking people longer than ever before to find employment; the average unemployed person is out of work for a record 31.2 weeks. A quarter of the unemployed — equivalent to the population of Connecticut — have already been out of a job for more than a year.

At 40, Louise is a wife and a mom, and she’s been working since she could get her workers permit at 16.

“I used to ride my bike to my local McDonald’s for a 7 a.m. shift,” she said.  “Now even they won’t hire me because I’m over-experienced.”

Job hunting is what consumes her, every day.

“I look for jobs on every available board, paper or every person I have networked with several times a day,” Louise said. “This past week, I received my first response in two months: ‘I am sorry but we believe that we have found candidates that are better suited for this position than you.'”

Her benefits have been barely keeping the family afloat since she was laid off. Her husband works for FedEx and was working on his master’s degree before this happened. Their finances are a wreck.

“We’ve had to sell our car, burn through both of our 401(k)s and charge up all our credit cards just to stay afloat,” she says. “We’re a month behind on our rent. I jump every time the doorbell or telephone ring because I know that it is someone looking for money from us, and we don’t have any.”

She says she’s looked in every field — retail, office work, human resources, customer service and anything else she can apply for. She’s even applied to wait tables, but they objected that her last waitressing job was 20 years ago.

The family’s precarious financial situation hasn’t just taken a toll on their finances. It’s taken over Louise’s life.

“I bite my nails. My hair is starting to fall out,” she said. “I have very little dignity left.  I can barely look at my husband, I feel so ashamed.”

Food stamps help, she says. She’s applied for Section 8 housing, started taking the bus, and, when she’s not looking for a job, spends time playing outside with her daughter.

She says that she never thought something like this could happen to two people who have worked hard all their lives.

“I never dreamed of this world that I am living in,” she said. “I hate for my daughter to see me like this, and I hope that this will be a brief period in her life that she doesn’t remember as she grows older.”

Louise created the Facebook group, “Tier V to Survive,” to rally support around Congress extending unemployment by another tier. She says she calls her Senators and representatives and faxes them daily. She says there are millions like her who have been so hurt by this recession that they won’t be able to survive without further help.

“I feel that they are so very out of touch with us,” she said.  “If they had just one relative who was going through this they would understand that we are hanging on by a fingernail.”

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “I’m Scared”

99ers-hdrSusan Madrak’s 99 weeks are up.

“I’m done. My last check was three weeks ago,” she says about her unemployment benefits. She’s got two months worth of savings in the bank, but after that, she says she’s not sure what will happen.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I have a couple of job leads I’m pursuing, but who knows? I don’t really know what to do if none of this comes through.”

Susan, who’s 55 and lives in Philadelphia, has been pounding the pavement since 2008 when she was laid off from her sales job at a consulting business.

headshot“I’ve looked everywhere,” Susan said. “I have probably sent out 400 resumes in the last year and a half, two years. I’ve gotten one interview. One interview.

Although these last two years have been incredibly difficult, her saving grace has been her political blog — Suburban Guerilla — where she writes about the country, the economy and her own struggle to find work. Her readers have even pitched in when she’s been in dire straits, paying $700 a month COBRA health insurance coverage for the first 18 months of her unemployment and chipping in for car repairs.

Some conservatives cling tight to the ludicrous notion that people on unemployment are enjoying themselves and refusing to look for work. One U.S. representative recently lamented that extending unemployment benefits is “creating hobos.” Not so, says Susan.

She says it’s been nearly impossible to find a job, and anything out there offers so little security that it’s difficult to take a chance on it. If she takes a new job, but gets laid off before working there long enough to qualify for unemployment, it means she’s out of luck.

“You have to make an educated guess,” said Susan. “When you know the economy is falling down, you’re not really interested in playing dice.”

What angers her the most is the ambivalence of politicians in her own Democratic party.

“I am devastated by the fact that the party I have supported all my life is so utterly indifferent to the suffering of ordinary men and women,” said Susan. “For the first time in my life, I don’t even feel like voting.”

While Congress has passed extensions for the current tiers of unemployment, almost no one is talking about adding another tier for people like herself who have exhausted all benefits.

“They had plenty of money to prop up Wall Street. They don’t have enough money to help people who are struggling,” she says.

With no help on the horizon, Susan wonders what the next few months have in store.

“I’m sitting here wondering how I’m going to pay my bills if this money runs out,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

This post was part of my 2010 series on the 99ers  – people who were still looking for a job once their 99 weeks of unemployment were up. I’m going to be following up with these folks to find out where they are now, but you can read the previous stories here, here and here.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “The American Dream Is a Living Nightmare”

99ers-hdrHere’s another from my 2010 series “Meet the 99ers.” As you probably remember, after the Great Recession, Congress approved extra emergency unemployment benefits for people who were out of work, extending unemployment for 99 weeks. But there were still plenty of people looking for a job, even after that term ended, and I interviewed a handful of them. Today is Doug Deaton’s story. Doug hails from my home state of Michigan, which is no longer the state with the highest unemployment, but still is sixth from the top with a rate of 8.9 percent.

 

It should be no surprise that one of our 99ers hails from Michigan. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the mitten state has been hard-hit by the economic downturn, compounding years of loss in the automotive industry.

Doug Deaton knows exactly how hard it is to find a job in Michigan.

At 62, many people might happily take Social Security and retire, rather than continue looking for a job.

But not Doug. He wants to work. He needs to work.

Doug moved back to Michigan from Seattle several years ago after identity theft ruined his finances. He moved back in with his elderly mother in Battle Creek, where he had grown up.

“Instead of being able to help her, I needed her help. It should have been the other way around,” he says.  “I should have been able to do more for her.”

He got a job with a temp-to-hire firm and began working at a nearby university, with the promise of being hired full time. But when a new director chose to hire a personal friend instead, this former consultant/conference coordinator/sales manager was again out of work and out of money.

Since then, he’s looked for work daily and survived on unemployment benefits, which he’s now exhausted.

“I have emailed and mailed thousands [of resumes] in the last three years. About once every three or four months, I might get some type of response,” he says. “Most of the time, nothing.”

One of the problems, he says, is age discrimination. Although he has a lot of job experience, skills and is in good health, most companies are not interested in hiring an older person. When he applied at Starbucks, he says the manager didn’t want to hire him, even though he had experience as a barista.

“I already knew the job, but he literally told me I was too old and that I couldn’t keep up,” Doug said.

Doug says he ended up doing so well on the test that the manager had no choice but to hire him. Even that position disappeared, though, when he wasn’t given enough hours to stay on.

His mother recently passed away after a long illness, and since then, Doug has been struggling to get by.

“I am blessed to have a landlord who is a prince. I owe him an incredible amount of back rent,” he says. “He knows what I have been through, and he knows I have nowhere else to go if I were evicted.”

He says he’s resisted getting government help as long as possible, but he’s had to use food stamps and Medicare. He applied to get early Social Security, just to pay his rent.

But this isn’t the America he’s believed in — one where there’s an honest day’s work for anyone who’s willing.

“The majority of our elected officials have forgotten why they were sent to D.C. in the first place, and that is to do the will of the people, and take care of the American dream,” he says. “For me, it has become a living nightmare.”

Missed the other posts in this series? Read Yvonne’s story and Ricky’s too.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “We May Never Be Gainfully Employed Again”

99ers-hdrYesterday, I posted the first of a five-post series that I did back in 2010 on the “99ers” – people who maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment after the Great Recession. Despite the fact that these stories are three years old, I was surprised by how relevant they are today and how little has changed for workers in our economy. Los Angeles’ unemployment rate is still a dismal 11.3 percent.

n578893139_71574_4839Here’s Yvonne’s story:

Just a few months back, Yvonne Shine was nearly evicted from her “rinky-dink” apartment in downtown Los Angeles because she couldn’t pay her rent.

“I think I’m going to be back in the same position again by the first of next month,” she said. “I don’t have any money coming in.”

The fact that she’s been unemployed for over two years is still shocking to Yvonne. She started working at 15 years old and has decades of experience in administration, including work at a movie studio, a major university, a biomedical engineering company and more. But since she was laid off from her job as an executive assistant at a local union in 2007, she can count the number of temp jobs she’s gotten on one hand.

She spends her days reading the Bible and learning the latest software to keep her resume current. Right now, she’s mastering Windows 7 and the latest Microsoft Office.

“It never occurred to me that at my age now I would have no benefits, no pension, and be totally unemployed and virtually unable to reenter the workforce,” she said. “There is a very good chance that a lot of us in our 40s and 50s will never be gainfully employed again.”

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is over 12 percent, and higher in the black and Hispanic communities. Yvonne says the few places that are hiring where she lives don’t even pay enough to make ends meet.

“What jobs there are out there, they don’t pay a living wage. There’s no place in this country where you can live off of $10 an hour, not even if you’re single and certainly not if you have a family,” she said.

Yvonne’s list of unpaid bills keeps rising, and the resources she has left to search for a job are waning.

“I have a $1,000 power bill. It’s by the grace of God that they transferred the service since I moved,” she said. “My phone bill is due today — I’m going to be getting a call soon saying that if I don’t pay, my service will be disconnected. I don’t own a car anymore. I don’t even have money to buy a bus pass.”

Her family and friends have helped out by paying her phone bill or her rent when they can, but they’re struggling too.

“There is only so much they can do. They can’t do it every month,” she said.

Yvonne, who was born in Alabama and grew up during the Civil Rights movement there, says she can’t fathom not exercising her right to vote, and yet she feels that there’s no one left to vote for that will respond to her pleas for help. Our elected officials, she says, seem more interested in their own job security than the suffering of the unemployed.

“It’s not representation of the people, by the people and for the people unless they’re the people,” she says.

Yvonne says she’s not worried about the future, but only because of her strong faith. Whether she finds a job or ends up in a homeless shelter next month, she says she knows she will be alright.

“It’s all in the hands of God. I fall asleep praying to God and thanking him for delivering me. He’s the only hope I’ve had, and he’s not failed me yet,” she said.

Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, In-depth Reporting

Meet the 99ers: “We Played By the Rules, and Now We’ve Lost Everything”

99ers-hdrI wrote this series on the 99ers – folks who have maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment but hadn’t found a job – back in 2010 for Change.org. The pieces may be a few years old, but I was surprised how incredibly relevant they still were as I read through them. According to the February jobs report, 38 percent of the unemployed in the U.S. are considered “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Why 27 weeks? Because these days, the extra emergency benefits that Congress approved during the recession have lapsed, and people only get 26 weeks of unemployment compensation from their state.

I need to follow up with these folks and see how they are doing now. I’ll put that on my never-ending to-do list.

Anyway, meet Ricky, a father and an electrician. His story about selling his tools to pay for his son’s medication broke my heart. Take a look, and check back for the other four posts later this week:

 

If it weren’t for his son, says Ricky Macoy, he doesn’t know if he would have survived these last two years of unemployment.

“I suffer from depression,” he says. “There are times when my situation makes me feel so hopeless I can barely get out of bed. There have been times, like about a month ago, where I was almost suicidal. If it hadn’t been for my son, I don’t know … ”

Ricky, who’s 52, has worked as an electrician for 30 years, but was laid off from his job working on ocean-going vessels in Louisiana in November of 2008 and hasn’t worked since. He and his 11-year-old son, John, have been barely scraping by during that time. He’s spent all the money he had saved in John’s college fund, and still, they may be evicted from their Texas home next week.

“I’m worried to death that if I get to be homeless that my son’s going to be take away from me and put in foster care,” Ricky says.

He says his son has been putting on a brave face, but Ricky knows it’s been hard on him too.

“He worries. He just kind of keeps things bottled up inside,” he says. “I haven’t said anything to him about the foster care. He’s very brave. He knows right now things are hard.”

Not being able to provide for his son has been the worst part of his unemployment, Ricky says. He says so many men like him have provided for their families for years, a role they’ve cherished.

“It makes you feel good when you bring home the check and you know everything is going to be alright,” he says. “When there’s nothing coming in, you feel like a failure. When I look my kid in the eye to tell him I don’t have money for a field trip for school — $12 for a field trip for school. I didn’t have it.”

But the worst day was when he had to scrounge up $5 for John’s asthma medicine. He went to the clinic and asked for samples, but no one had any. He had to sell some of his tools he used to use for work — a tool worth more than $150 sold for $10 — to get money for medicine.

Ricky says it’s maddening to know you’ve done nothing to deserve this suffering, and yet, there’s nothing you can do to escape it. He says millions like him are suffering, and no one seems to notice.

“I worked hard, played by the rules and I done lost everything I worked my whole life for,” he says. “We’re the people who helped build this economy. We’re the ones who got up every day, put our boots on and went to work. We played by the rules, and now we’ve lost everything.”

Ricky got about 60 weeks of unemployment, but his last check came February 7th. Texas didn’t qualify for Tier IV benefits because its state unemployment rate wasn’t high enough. Ricky starts his day every morning looking for jobs anywhere he can find one.

He had just gotten back from a job interview when I spoke to him yesterday morning.  Ricky was hopeful about it, but the employer still had 18 more men to interview for the position.

He says in times like these, he and his son have had to rely on prayer when they haven’t had anything else to get them through.

A few months back, when they didn’t have the money to pay the rent and were going to be evicted, he and his son got on their knees and prayed for a solution. The next day, Ricky’s brother came up with the money to pay their rent.

“My son said to me, ‘Dad, prayer really works, doesn’t it?'” Ricky says. “I said, ‘Yes, it does, son.'”

Hope seems dim for Ricky right now. He asked me if I would say a prayer for him.

I said I would.

Update 4/30/2010: Ricky called me this morning to thank me for my prayers. He got the job. He says it’s like 1,000 pounds being lifted from his shoulders. We’re so happy for him and wish him and his son the very best.

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.