Housing crisis in Chicago

CHICAGO – Housing is becoming a nightmare for low- and middle-income families here. Once a city that boasted a fairly large supply of relatively inexpensive rental options, Chicago is becoming a city where you may spend well over half your income on rent and utility bills and where a series of factors are threatening to create an even more critical housing crisis and an increasing homeless population.

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the city’s provider of low-cost public housing, is relentlessly tearing down tens of thousands of units, in spite of the fact that there are no places for the more than 50,000 displaced persons to go. There are no plans to create sufficient new housing and insufficient funds to do so even if such plans existed.

In 2001 alone, the CHA demolished 3,901 units while creating only 75 new ones. This year, 4,317 units will be destroyed and only 95 new ones will be created. Those losing their apartments are told to move to Section 8 housing in the private rental housing market, which now has only a 3 percent vacancy rate – and a waiting list of 48,000.

The Section 8 program of rent subsidies for low-income people in private apartments itself has a waiting list of 35,000 and is closed for the next three to five years. Many landlords are withdrawing from the program and few new ones are signing up.

Real estate speculation (“gentrification”) is forcing low and middle-income people out of many of the Chicago neighborhoods where affordable housing still exists. This has both political and economic roots.

City planning – the infamous “Chicago 21 Plan” concocted in the 1970s, since updated but essentially unchanged – posits removing lower- and middle-income, mostly minority, populations from neighborhoods surrounding the downtown “Loop” area of the city in order to free valuable land for upscale development. It should come as no surprise, then, that real estate interests and developers are among the plan’s staunchest supporters.

African-American activists accuse the city of establishing these planning priorities in order to break up neighborhoods with an historic record of opposition to the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Right-wing Democrats, headed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, saw power slip temporarily from their hands during the brief administration of Harold Washington (1983-1987), when African-American and Latino neighborhoods united to oust the Democratic Party machine.

African-American families still face strong discrimination in efforts to rent or buy in neighborhoods where affordable housing still exists. Relocated CHA tenants are generally shifted from one segregated slum to another. The court ordered “Scattered Site” program, with its smaller public housing clusters, has been kept out of many areas of the city and its suburbs by political leaders who don’t want low-income African-Americans in their neighborhoods.

Suburbs use zoning laws and police harassment to keep out African-American, Latino and low-income people who have been priced – or pushed – out of Chicago, with many suburbs limiting the number of apartment units (as opposed to single family homes) that can be built. Other municipalities limit the number of family members who can live in a house or apartment, seen by many as an ill-concealed attack against Latino immigrant families.

The situation is bound to get worse. Pushing tens of thousands of former CHA residents into an already-tight private rental market is bound to drive up rents and homelessness, with an attendant increase in social problems and tension. Many lower income families already have to move several times within a given year, transferring their children to a new school each time. With every transfer, such children fall further behind in their school progress.

Organizations of CHA residents and private housing tenants are uniting to fight this mounting crisis. Although all agree that conditions in the classic “high rise” CHA apartment towers are unlivable, there is consternation at the thought of simply dumping people into the private housing market without any plans for new construction.

Growing popular demands focus on creating at least one unit of new low income housing for every one demolished, and trying to get control of spiraling private rental and real estate tax costs. This brings housing rights activists into direct confrontation with the most powerful economic and political forces in the city.