Chicago's housing emergency

For too long, the city council has treated the issue of housing shortages as a dry matter of public policy and not the human rights crisis that it is. A lack of housing in a city is connected to everything from crime to illness to preventing children from receiving a good education. A policy tweak is not going to solve our housing problems. We need aggressive action on the ward level and citywide.

Housing is a human right

My strategy

  • While advocating for repeal of the rent control prohibition act in Springfield, introduction of legislation that works around that prohibition. 
  • Put all neglected (abandoned, foreclosed, misused) properties to productive use.
  • City apartment inspection system reform, beginning with pressure from ward office and development of an oversight program for inspections.
  • A task force specifically to develop strategies to address the challenges unique to the East Hyde Park and South Shore high rises.

More about housing

The challenges on the north and south ends of the Fifth Ward regarding housing are closely related, and they all interconnect with other challenges we face. In Hyde Park, we have a stable market under a great deal of pressure. In the last 15 years, we have seen more than once the phenomenon of a teardown for the sake of building something new, as opposed to some crumbling structure needing to come down for safety’s sake. Million-dollar sales are not unusual.

But that is not the whole story. Affordable housing, while dwindling, still exists in Hyde Park, including some rental housing. Properties with subsidies attached to them are vanishing most quickly, but many landlords accept Housing Choice Vouchers, and there are some deals to be found west of University if you look hard enough and have a little bit of luck.

But finding shelter for your family should not have to depend on luck. By law, all landlords have to accept Housing Choice Voucher holders, although we know as a matter of practice that many find excuses to exclude. Hyde Park needs to make sure everyone is treated fairly. And that where tenants are able to find housing, it is decent as well as affordable. And where people need that little bit of help, they also have access to other needed resources. We cannot treat housing like this is the wild west. Some have homes that have turned into tremendous assets. There’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s not narrow our understanding of what shelter means to dollars and sense.

In communities like those in the Fifth Ward, there is a substantial amount of very old property that is sometimes a challenge to maintain and which can have years of deferred maintenance which make it substandard as housing. This challenge is compounded by incidents of abuse of tenants using housing vouchers or in properties with project-based units. However, as with so many of our challenges, a solution is embedded in the correct perspective on the circumstance.

The conditions in many properties could be mitigated by mandates from the housing inspectors that review properties that landlords want to make available to what we used to call Section 8 voucher holders. This is a point at which the system could do a great good for our communities and instead perpetuates a predatory system. Based on review of existing reports and numerous conversations with voucher holders, what happens instead of a rigorous and fair review of housing options is a system in which certain owners have slum buildings that are routinely approved for occupancy, while others are harassed on an ongoing basis for properties that are in very good condition. Overall, one notable difference between the two is the size of their holdings. The former group tends to be large property holders, while the latter are usually small-time, owning just one or two properties. For example, there is a two-flat building in Woodlawn that two ladies rent that I have visited. It is immaculate – extremely well maintained by these women and the landlord, who is a retired police officer. The tenants report that inspectors steadily return and demand new changes to the property, sometimes costing considerable investment, when they are unnecessary. They showed me some decorative glass that had cracked as an example. It had nothing to do with their units; it was something on the outside of the building. An inspector had recently demanded the landlord repair the crack in the glass, although it was strictly decorative in nature. The tenants said the inspectors often made demands of the landlord and the next one never followed up to see if the work had been done but instead made new demands. Meanwhile, I have seen roaches and rats and incredibly poor conditions in other buildings that are also inspected. What’s the difference? What do you think?

For problems like this, we need to take a two-pronged approach. Without question, the Fifth Ward must take a leadership position in reforming these practices for the whole city. In the meantime, we need for the word to get out that corruption will not be tolerated in the Fifth Ward. Peddle your mess somewhere else. Our tenants are going to have the highest quality apartments in the city. This will in turn provide us with a much better maintained housing stock. Also, the repairs that will be done can be done by local folks, which will help support the economy. Meanwhile, inspections will be done with a community observer present, documenting the entire process. Failures to record problems and unnecessary or inaccurate write-ups will be recorded and action will be taken.