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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Ald. Jeanette Taylor Waited Decades For A Section 8 Apartment. It Took So Long, She No Longer Needs One.

Now, the South Side alderperson is working to change the system so no one waits decades for affordable housing again. "Housing is key to everything else that’s wrong with this city," she said.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) at a City Council meeting in February 2020.
Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — Jeanette Taylor first applied for a Chicago Housing Authority voucher in 1993 as a single mother of three, living in a one-bedroom apartment where the dining room served as an extra bedroom.

Last Friday, the now-20th Ward alderperson received a letter informing her that her application was selected off of the CHA’s waiting list, she said.

“I was looking at this letter this whole [Memorial Day] weekend like, ‘You can’t be serious,'” Taylor said.

Taylor’s application was previously chosen from the CHA’s Section 8 waiting list in the 2000s, she said. She declined a housing choice voucher at the time because its terms would’ve required her to kick out her son, who had just graduated high school, she said. Then she went back on the list.

“I was told to choose between the housing and my child, and I’m his mama. I’m going to always choose him first,” Taylor said.

In the interim, Taylor paid her housing costs in a variety of ways, including living with her mother for a time.

Knowing Peoples Gas has an annual winter moratorium on shutoffs, she’d stop paying that bill in favor of paying down other utilities. Then, when she was “hood rich” off her spring income tax refund, she’d catch up on gas and other late bills, she said.

Taylor now lives in a Woodlawn building owned by a friend, who charges her an enviable rate for the five-bedroom space. She no longer needs a voucher, as subsidized housing would likely be more expensive than the $1,000 monthly rent she’s paying now, she said.

The vouchers are “for people who actually need it, and for now, I’m not in a need,” she said.

The sour cherry on top: Though she waited nearly two decades to once again be chosen off the waiting list, she was given only one week from the day the letter arrived to complete her application online.

Though Taylor is now an elected official with the financial means to pay her housing costs, the decades of delays represent a broken system — one that far too many Chicagoans must navigate if they’re in need of a home, she said.

“I vote, I pay taxes, I participate and volunteer [in my community],” Taylor said. “To ask to get help and not get it says something about this country and this city, especially.”

When a family lacks affordable housing, it has a reverberating effect on the community, she said.

“Housing is key to everything else that’s wrong with this city,” Taylor said. “… Crime and violence in the community, it’s because we don’t secure and be a safety net for the people like we’re supposed to.”

To that end, Taylor recently introduced the Accountable Housing and Transparency ordinance, which aims to make it easier and quicker for people seeking affordable housing to find a home that fits their needs.

The ordinance proposal builds on the work of community groups like the Chicago Housing Initiative, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Southside Together Organizing for Power, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood and others, Taylor said.

“Organizations have been working for years to get stuff through to hold CHA and the city accountable, and [the city’s] done the bare minimum” in response, Taylor said.

The CHA can’t confirm the details of Taylor’s experience “for privacy reasons,” but “we fully agree that more resources are needed to address the need for affordable housing in Chicago and around the nation,” spokesperson Matthew Aguilar said.

The CHA’s Section 8 waiting list last opened in 2014, and the agency is working to place the 75,000 families who were added to the list at the time, Aguilar said. Since then, 43,000 families have received notices like Taylor’s, he said.

Families on the waiting list may only receive a voucher if an existing voucher holder no longer needs it. On average, about 2,400 families leave the CHA’s Section 8 program each year; at that rate, the agency will get through the families on its most recent waiting list sometime in the mid-2030s.

The agency’s public housing and project-based voucher lists are always open and have wait times ranging from six months to 25 years, Aguilar said.

Credit: Heather Cherone/ The Daily Line
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), seen here in 2020 alongside South Side housing organizers campaigning for a community benefits ordinance ahead of the Obama Presidential Center’s construction in Woodlawn.

A Push To Ensure ‘Accountable Housing’

Taylor introduced the City Council Accountable Housing and Transparency ordinance in late April. It would require, among other things:

  • Subsidized housing developers to maintain a 97 percent occupancy rate in their properties, and maintain an average 60-day turnaround time for vacant units.
  • The housing department to maintain a centralized waiting list and a centralized leasing platform for all available affordable housing.
  • The housing department to designate and fund nonprofits as “registration sites,” where people seeking housing could receive help with their applications.

The accountable housing ordinance would better match people to available units while taking the onus off individuals to track their application status, said Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

The coalition drafted the ordinance, which is now in the City Council’s housing and real estate committee.

People seeking affordable housing may frequently change addresses and phone numbers, and may not have easy access to technology. The registration sites would address this, allowing designated nonprofits to be another point of contact for people who may otherwise be unreachable, Washington said.

Applicants “can still be really involved, but it’s no longer up to them, by themselves, to navigate the bureaucracy,” Washington said. Trusted neighborhood groups with “a stake in making sure you get a place to stay” would “help you navigate that situation.”

The centralized housing database would also combine CHA information with vacancies submitted by private developers of affordable housing, like community development corporations, Washington said.

By better publicizing the available affordable units — and ensuring developers are actually filling their available units — the ordinance can “give people like me an opportunity to receive fair, clean and efficient housing,” Adella Bass said.

Bass is a volunteer with People for Community Recovery, which is a member of the Chicago Housing Initiative coalition. Her wait for a CHA voucher has been shorter than Taylor’s, but only marginally, as she’s awaited one since 2009, she said.

Since then, Bass and her family have experienced homelessness, first living out of a hotel before moving into a North Side shelter. She now lives in the Concordia Place Apartments, where residents last year called for sweeping renovations to improve squalid living conditions.

“I thought when my name hit the homeless list, or if I was able to prove [to CHA] I was homeless, that my name would be picked right off the top,” Bass said. “But that wasn’t the case. … I was just stuck.”

Bass’s experiences while waiting to access adequate, affordable housing are by no means rare, a fact that should motivate officials to act on the ordinance, she said.

“I hope that people that are in charge — the bigwigs that sit at these roundtables and make decisions for people that have to deal with this on the daily — take this serious,” Bass said. “Hear our cries, hear our concerns, and that will make your job easier.”

Aguilar did not answer whether the CHA is in support of the ordinance. He touted the CHA’s recent efforts to add 18 project-based vouchers at the newly christened Mattie Butler Apartments in Taylor’s 20th Ward.

City housing officials “look forward to discussing this proposed measure” with Ald. Taylor, housing department spokesperson Eugenia Orr said. She didn’t say whether the department supports the ordinance as introduced.

Officials will “work with the entire City Council, our sister departments and agencies on ways we can expand housing access and choice for all residents,” Orr said in a statement.

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