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.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

Cabrini row houses to go?

Policymakers and tenant leaders aren’t in agreement as CHA considers the future 586 public housing units

Cambridge Avenue in Cabrini-Green, just north of Chicago Avenue, is a study in contrasts.

On the west side of Cambridge, refurbished yellow brick surrounds new metal doors and sleek house numbers while cheerful landscaping brightens the space in front of row houses.

On Cambridge’s east side are dilapidated, mostly empty structures worn by decades of use and neglect.

Barbara Lott, a longtime resident of Cabrini, feels lucky that she secured a rehabbed unit near Cambridge. She keeps it smartly decorated and spotlessly clean.

“I love it here,” she said. “I just love where I live.”

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation has already brought big changes to Cabrini, knocking down all but four of the old high rises that used to dominate the landscape in this part of town. But after promising to rehab all of the row houses — 586 units of public housing — CHA has confirmed it is now considering doing away with many, if not all, of them.

At the beginning of the Plan, the Cabrini row houses were to remain as newly rehabbed and 100 percent traditional public housing, set apart from the mixed-income neighborhood the Plan is seeking to create.

And it’s that proximity that now has some policymakers concerned. They’re worried that having a block of concentrated poverty so near to the new neighborhood will be detrimental to public housing residents themselves and the broader community.

Resident leaders, however, are pushing back against any demolition of the row houses, making the case that traditional public housing communities can be vibrant, safe places. Losing additional units of public housing in an area that’s difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to find places live would be a travesty, they say.

Whether the east side of Cambridge will ever look like the west side, or whether some of the units, if not all of them, will see the wrecking ball is an open question at this point.

Unlike other residents who were afraid of the Plan For Transformation — CHA’s effort to remake the city’s public housing system — Lott hoped for the best and has been happy with the results.

The 41-year-old mother has seen both the promise of public housing and the desolation it produced. She’s lived in the Cabrini row houses most of her life, moving to Chicago when she was two years old with her parents from Calhoun, Mississippi. They were seeking a better life, and Lott remembers those early days well.

“People were a lot friendlier back then. My best friend lived just down the street,” she said. “We played all the time. There are activities for kids. It was different.”

She had a daughter when she was just 17 and dropped out of high school to take care of her mother, who became ill due to sickle cell anemia.

Lott has lived on almost every street in the row houses — Hudson, Cleveland, Oak, Mohawk and now Chestnut, near the corner of Cambridge. She’s loved it there, but she’s not blind to the neighborhood’s faults.

One summer night when her daughter was 12, Lott left her with a babysitter for the evening, but got a frantic call an hour later. Gang crossfire had gotten so bad that a bullet pierced her kitchen window, grazing her daughter’s forehead as she ate dinner.

“We were scared. I didn’t like it, but we couldn’t afford to move to someplace better,” Lott said.

She still worries. Her youngest son is 11, and she keeps close tabs on him, tracking who he plays with and warning him about the dangers of getting involved with the wrong people. Gang violence and drug dealing have certainly waned since the high-rises have come down, she said, but there’s still plenty of criminal activity around to make her wary.

That, in part, is what concerns Alex Polikoff, an attorney and the former executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy group.

Polikoff has long had an interest in the composition of residents at housing authority properties around Chicago.

Through BPI, he served as lead counsel in the Gautreaux case, which challenged the housing authority’s practice of putting public housing in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

The lawsuit, first filed in 1966, resulted in a consent decree calling for scattered-site public housing development in Chicago, which has long been overseen by a federal judge and the Habitat Company. That monitoring will be phased out over the next three years, CHA announced earlier this year.

Back in September, Polikoff and his colleagues filed a motion with the judge overseeing the Gautreaux case, asking the housing authority to reconsider keeping the row houses traditional public housing.

“History tells us over and over again that a concentrated urban poverty situation is not going to be good for the families, and it’s not going to be good for the adjacent neighborhood,” Polikoff said.

Polikoff cited research shows that areas of concentrated poverty produces negative outcomes — higher rates of out-of-wedlock births, inferior schools, more residents with criminal backgrounds, higher rates of crime and drug trafficking.

This kind of activity within the row houses, he said, will bleed over into the surrounding communities. And that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood he doesn’t want public housing residents to have to deal with.

“Why would we impose this additional burden on them?” Polikoff said.

Tenant leaders at Cabrini-Green don’t believe Polikoff has the residents’ best interest in mind.

Carol Steele, the president of the Cabrini Local Advisory Council, said public housing residents are indeed able live in a peaceful, positive neighborhood if given the right conditions.

”You can’t say you’re doing right by people and you don’t put good management or good security in the buildings,” Steele said. ”In this city, the Plan has been about moving low-income people up and out.”<

She dismissed Polikoff’s concerns that maintaining the row houses as traditional public housing will negatively impact the groups of condos and town homes that surround it.<

“Who died and made Alex Polikoff God?” Steele said. “I don’t care what he thinks. Gautreaux is done. We no longer need Gautreaux.”

Steele’s lawyer, Richard Wheelock, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, agrees that with proper management, good security and supportive services, the row houses can be vibrant public housing community.

Demolishing them, he said, will mean a loss of almost 600 public housing units, further limiting the number of families that can return to the Cabrini-Green area.

“We’re concerned that CHA is going to break its word to the residents and not pursue rehab of that site, which would be a terrible decision,” Wheelock said. “It’s a huge loss of public housing. Where would you build the remaining units? Where would that be made up? Certainly not in the Cabrini area.”

Wheelock also took issue with the idea that the new residents of the row houses are going to be troublesome.

He pointed to a recently imposed work requirement for public housing residents, along with new admissions policies that encourage moderate income families to move in and strict rules for lease violations.

These changes, he said, will make the row house population more stable and cohesive.

“There are plenty of examples where you have low-rise public housing, if the families are being provided proper social services, proper management, proper repairs to the units and police protection — it can work,” Wheelock said.

Polikoff doesn’t want to take that chance. Can traditional public housing work? Yes, he acknowledged. But will it work? He’s not so sure.

“Everything we know tells us that it’s not inconceivable, theoretically, that we could produce great results in a 100 percent public housing community,” Polikoff said. “But what is the likelihood of that happening? We’re not sure.”

Both Wheelock and Polikoff expect the Chicago Housing Authority to announce a decision soon. The agency has been tight-lipped about when that decision will come or what it will be.

“No official decision has been made,” Matt Aguilar, a CHA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

Any decision, he wrote, be it demolition or some sort of reconfiguration of the row houses, would be discussed and determined within Cabrini’s working group, a committee of community members and city officials that plans the site’s redevelopment.

Lott said she isn’t losing sleep about the decision.

If the row houses stay, Lott will stay in the home that she loves. If they go, she has an idea of where she would like to move. Either way, she wants to live in a community where she feels safe.

“I just want everybody to be able to get along, even if you’re from one end of Cabrini or the other,” Lott said. “I love my apartment. I love where I’m at. I just want less violence and more community.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on June 23, 2010.