Tag Archives: affordable housing

Dwindling SROs: Hotel Chateau residents fear they’ll soon be homeless

31 Jan

Margaret and Tony don’t have much, but they get by. Sometimes, Tony jokes, their 12-year-old cat, Jason, eats better than them.

Margaret’s rough hands look like they’ve been scrubbed clean, almost to the point of being painful. She has the kind of manners that make you think she was brought up by a very attentive mother—please, thank you and pardon me.

She manages polite conversation, even though she’s terribly worried. Tony is too. They live at Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy building in East Lakeview, and it’s recently been sold. If the Chateau goes the way of the handful of other SRO buildings nearby, the couple will soon be priced out.

Tony and Margaret’s names have been changed to protect their identity because they fear they’ll be kicked out of the building. Together, they survive on $1,066 a month, with each getting $533 in disability checks. Margaret has epilepsy. Tony has a hearing problem. They’ve been married for 12 years, throughout which they’ve moved from place to place in Chicago every couple of years as the rent became unaffordable.

They don’t love living at the Chateau, but it’s a roof over their head. When Tony talks about his neighbors, many of whom are drug addicts and alcoholics, he hesitates to bad-mouth them, knowing they need a place to live too.

“Let’s just say that some of our neighbors leave something to be desired,” he says.

What will happen to Margaret, Tony and their more undesirable neighbors? Local residents are trying to figure that out.

Their Day In Court

At a Tuesday court hearing, residents found out that the Chateau will be vacated and gutted. The hearing was on the building’s code violations, but residents had hoped to learn more about the sale.

In fact, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman had previously said more information about the owners would be revealed at the court hearing. But on Tuesday, Cappleman instead declined to state the buyer’s name, saying he had promised the new owner not to reveal the identity.

The Chicago Reporter asked Cappleman why he would make such a promise, given that Chateau residents, his constituents, are anxious about the building’s fate. He waved his hand and said, “There’s something called the First Amendment.”

Cappleman also said he wasn’t sure when the owner’s name would be disclosed. He emphasized the Chateau’s current condition was hazardous to its residents.

“My focus right now is on saving people’s lives,” said Cappleman. “My first priority is that the residents are safe.”

The Chateau has been in housing court ever since an inspection in the fall found numerous building violations, including problems with fire escapes, smoke alarms and trash piling up in hallways and garbage chutes.

A new corporation named 3838 North Broadway, the Chateau’s address, was established on Jan. 3, according to the Illinois Corporations Database, which is part of the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s not clear who owns that business, though the database listed attorney Gerard Walsh as its registered agent. Walsh did not answer his phone or return voicemails seeking comment. The attorney who represented the corporation in court, Mitchell Asher, declined to comment on the identity of the building’s new owner.

Real estate mogul Jamie Purcell of BJB Properties has already purchased four former SROs in the neighborhood–the Ambers, the Bel-Air, the Sheffield and the Abbott. All of those buildings have been vacated, rehabbed and are being reopened as high-end studio apartment buildings that are not affordable for Margaret and Tony, who pay $575 a month at the Chateau. Purcell did not return several voicemails the Reporter left at his Park Ridge office.

Searching For Home

Meanwhile, Margaret and Tony are looking for another place to live, but they are not too optimistic. Most nonprofits or programs that have low-income housing don’t allow couples to live together. Or they have a long waiting list.

“We are on a number of waiting lists,” says Margaret.

When they hear that neighborhood residents are afraid of the people who live at the Chateau, they sympathize. They’re often bothered by their neighbors too.

But among the 138 rooms at the Chateau, they say, are people like themselves—working-class people, poor people, ordinary people who do not have any other place to go.

Chester Kropidlowski is one of those in the neighborhood who’s bothered by Chateau patrons. Some of them, he says, panhandle in front of the building; others loiter there too or at a bus shelter nearby. Neighbors feel the building’s residents contribute to crime in the area.

But Kropidlowski also recognizes that there are people whom he described as “poor souls” living at the Chateau and causing no trouble. He contends that the big problem is how the building is managed.

“The same person has owned it for many, many years,” says Kropidlowski, president of the board of the local neighborhood group, East Lake View Neighbors. “Apparently, the person lives in a gated community in Florida, impossible to contact, and he has only responded to concerns in the past when he had no other choice.”

Kropidlowski is referring to Jack Gore, who has owned other troubled Chicago SROs. In 2008, Gore relinquished ownership of the Diplomat Hotel, also in Lakeview, when the building began to rack up fines from code violations. The business number for Gore at Cedar Hotel has been disconnected. Gore’s lawyer, Leon Wexler, confirmed Gore no longer owns the Chateau, but he wouldn’t comment further.

A Safe Haven, A Safe Community

It’s clear the Chateau isn’t the neighborhood’s favorite, but Kropidlowski hopes it can be turned into something he and others would be “proud to have in the community.”

In essence, Kropidlowski, Margaret and Tony all want the same thing–a safe Hotel Chateau and a safe neighborhood. It’s just that getting it will likely mean Margaret and Tony can no longer live there.

“They’ll straighten it up, and then they’re going to charge a lot more money,” says Margaret.

Sreya Sarkar has noticed the decline of available SRO housing in the neighborhood in her job as education and advocacy director at Lakeview Pantry, a food pantry that sits across the street from the Chateau. She estimates that Lakeview has lost at least 400 affordable units over the last two years.

Working at the pantry, she gets to meet plenty of Chateau residents like Margaret and Tony.

“They’re good citizens,” says Sarkar. “They don’t cause trouble. They don’t have substance abuse issues. They want to live peacefully there. They just don’t have another place to go to because other SROs have closed down.”

A local group that advocates for affordable housing, Lakeview Action Coalition, is hoping it can convince the hotel’s new owner to keep at least part of the building affordable. Bharathi Gunasekaran, a housing organizer with the coalition, says many of the Chateau’s tenants come from other places nearby that have closed.

“A lot of people have moved from one SRO to another as they’ve been closing,” says Gunasekaran.

Gunasekaran was upset to hear that the building would be vacated.

“Once the residents move out, they have no chance of moving back in,” she said.

After the court hearing, residents of the Chateau surrounded Cappleman, questioning him about the building’s future and their own. When Cappleman replied that he was working with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services to help residents find housing, all Margaret could do was sigh.

“We’re going to end up on the street,” she said.

First posted at Chicago Muckrakers on Jan. 31, 2013

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Mapping lost housing: Lakeview’s disappearing SRO hotels

20 Dec

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.

Lakeview shedding affordable housing units: an interview with reporter and activist Bob Zuley

16 Nov

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.

No 8s: Is not accepting voucher holders discrimination or avoiding red tape headaches?

31 Oct

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.

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

5 Oct

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.

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

4 Oct

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.

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

3 Oct

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.