Rachael Tovar's Harbor Drive apartment is her first truly accessible home. Credit: Courtesy of Rachael Tovar

Rachael Tovar was devastated when she received word last year from the Chicago Housing Authority that the money she received to subsidize her housing would be significantly reduced. It meant that the 59-year-old would have to move out of her apartment at 175 N. Harbor Drive. For the the first time in her 15 years of getting around primarily by wheelchair, she had an apartment that was compliant with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The large rooms and wide doorways of the lakefront high-rise allowed her to move around easily, and the grocery store in the building also assured her independence. Her two youngest kids were on their way out of the house to live on their own, but having three bedrooms meant she could also have a live-in health aide and space enough for the medical equipment she relies on to manage her worsening spinal stenosis, chronic asthma, and acute arthritis.

Tovar’s residency in the Harbor Drive apartment was made possible by a unique Chicago Housing Authority program for Section 8 voucher holders—one that came to a halt in 2014 amid politicized backlash that it was wasting taxpayer dollars to provide luxurious housing for poor people.

What came to be popularly known as the “supervoucher” program allowed voucher holders to receive subsidies worth up to 300 percent of the fair market rent in neighborhoods deemed by the CHA to be “opportunity areas.” These had to be places with low poverty rates and low rates of subsidized households. While vouchers are ordinarily calibrated to fair market rents for the entire Chicago metro area, the CHA recognized that this average calculation that included the city and suburbs, rich and poor areas, led voucher values to be too low to allow families access to large swaths of the city, particularly integrated neighborhoods on the north side and close to downtown. Tovar was one of many people with disabilities who qualified for the program, which was all but essential for securing housing in wheelchair-accessible properties. Most of them are concentrated on the north side, in buildings constructed following the 1991 ADA design standards.

“The housing market is ridiculously slim for those of us in a chair,” says Tovar, who’s spent months searching for alternative housing while paying more than half of her social security disability income toward rent since the CHA lowered its voucher payouts to her in 2016. Through a series of emergency petitions to CHA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development this past year, Tovar has managed to remain at the Harbor Drive apartment on a month-to-month agreement. However, she has to plan to move out in the next year.

As the undertaking of finding another wheelchair-accessible unit looms, the CHA may once again be able to help Tovar and other voucher holders with disabilities burdened by higher payments. A new report released last week by the University of Chicago’s Policy Research Team and the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance quantifies the dire shortage of affordable, handicap-accessible housing in Chicago, and chronicles the rampant discrimination voucher holders face among landlords.

In light of these findings and feedback from voucher holders and advocates, CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan says in a written statement that her agency “recognizes the difficulties that many of our voucher holders with disabilities face when searching for an accessible unit.” The CHA is now poised to attempt a new iteration of the supervoucher program, this time armed with data to inform its design and deflect the kind of criticism that hampered its precursor.

The report “is a great example of the advocates, the data crunchers, and the policy makers all coming together to effectuate good policy change,” Sullivan says, adding that the proposal for the new program will be submitted for public comment later this summer and for approval by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the fall.

The new program will be more limited in scope as compared to the supervoucher program of old. As the Reader reported last year, the program once functioned as a sort of desegregation strategy, allowing voucher families who passed through a gauntlet of screenings an opportunity to move into neighborhoods with more jobs, better transportation, higher-performing schools, and a plethora of other benefits. But when news of the program broke in the summer of 2014, years after it began, its benefits for the fewer than 800 households who participated were overshadowed by coverage of voucher holders living in Aqua Tower condos or paying nothing to rent new single-family homes. By then no one who engineered the program at the CHA was still there to defend it, and the agency failed to keep records to explain the need for the program and hadn’t collected data about the benefits it conferred.

Amid the media frenzy and a Department of Housing and Urban Development audit aimed at assessing the supervoucher program’s compliance with federal guidelines, the CHA scaled back. It limited voucher payouts to 150 percent of fair market rent in opportunity areas, and many of those who’d been given the chance of a lifetime to move out of poor, segregated neighborhoods were sent packing.

The Policy Research Team’s report presents a variety of findings on the way that voucher holders are segregated and discriminated against in Chicago. It highlights the overlaps of current voucher holders’ residential patterns with historical maps of residential redlining on the south and west sides; it introduces new data on landlords who discriminate against voucher holders or actively recruit them into under-resourced neighborhoods on apartment listings websites; and it shows which neighborhoods have the highest rates of discrimination complaints based on race and source of income (i.e., where landlords refuse to rent to families because they have vouchers). But some of the most striking data in the study concerns handicap-accessible housing.

When the supervouchers were scaled back, people with disabilities were hurt the most, the report notes. In examining April listings on apartments.com—the only online listing service that allows searches by wheelchair accessibility—the authors found that of the some 2,800 listed properties, only 300 had units with wheelchair accessibility. Almost 70 percent of the wheelchair-accessible housing is in neighborhoods the CHA designates as opportunity areas. And the bigger the apartment, the higher the rent when wheelchair accessibility is required. A median three-bedroom, accessible apartment in an opportunity area can be $2,000 more per month than a non-accessible unit in an opportunity area.

Such “accessibility premiums” hold true for every size of apartment in both the CHA’s opportunity areas and the rest of the city, and the rent prices are between 14 and 91 percent greater than the CHA’s current maximum voucher payments. This means that if a voucher holder with accessibility needs managed to rent the unit, she would have to spend more than 30 percent of her income in addition to the voucher to pay the rent. Such a circumstance runs counter to the goal of vouchers.

In addition to dealing with race-based and source-of-income discrimination from landlords, the rarity and high cost of wheelchair-accessible housing means that even less of the rental housing market is available and affordable to voucher holders with disabilities than their able-bodied peers. For Tovar, who’s looking for a three-bedroom unit, just 1.6 percent of accessible properties are affordable (meaning she’d pay no more than 30 percent of her income for rent) with the CHA’s current voucher payouts in opportunity areas. By contrast, the report notes, voucher holders without accessibility needs can afford 30 to 55 percent of properties in opportunity areas that have up to three bedrooms.

To correct this disparity, the authors of the report recommend that the exception payment standards for voucher holders with accessibility needs be raised to at least 200 percent of the fair market rent for studios and one-bedroom apartments, and to at least 225 percent of the fair market rent for apartments with two or more bedrooms.

With the report in hand, the CHA appears better prepared to handle any eventual criticism from the public or questions about the program from HUD. This time around, the agency wants to allow payment flexibility up to 250 percent of the fair market rent instead of 300, and the program will be limited to people who have disability accessibility needs. In addition, disabled voucher holders would be able to benefit from higher voucher payments in both the CHA-designated opportunity areas and everywhere else. Though most of the accessible housing stock is in opportunity areas anyway, this provision will help remedy the disparity in housing affordability between households with wheelchair accessibility needs and those without them in every part of the city.

The CHA doesn’t currently keep data on how many of its roughly 46,000 voucher holders require wheelchair accessibility, but the new version of supervouchers will likely serve a small minority of its residents. And although this higher voucher payment flexibility will help, it eliminates just one barrier voucher holders face when trying to find a place to rent, particularly in well-to-do neighborhoods. The stigma associated with having a voucher is still pervasive, as showcased by the Policy Research Team’s report and the ongoing, acrimonious battle to build a new affordable-housing development in Jefferson Park that would prioritize veterans and voucher holders with disabilities.

Tovar is encouraged to hear that the CHA is trying the higher exception payment standards once again, but she may have to move out of her current place before HUD approves the program and it’s rolled out again. As she’s searched around for accessible apartments throughout the past year, she says she’s also been juggling other obstacles. Despite the fact that she has stellar references from prior landlords and a stable income bolstered not only by the voucher but also by social security disability benefits and earnings from her work as a remote call-center agent, she’s still nursing her credit back to health after filing for bankruptcy several years ago. Though the bankruptcy is discharged and she’s rebuilt a lot of her credit, Tovar says most landlords still hold that against her. And she says she’s also encountered landlords who refuse to rent to her because she’s in a wheelchair.

Prior to securing her current residence in 2012 through the old supervoucher program, Tovar was living with two of her three children and moved through “one goofy place after another,” including a basement apartment with black mold and no ramp that forced her to park her wheelchair in a common hallway. Another apartment had a poorly constructed ramp that caused her to fall. Her goal now is to find an affordable building with an elevator in a part of town where she can get around on her own.

“It’s a wonderful place,” Tovar says of her Harbor Drive residence, but she adds that she doesn’t necessarily need the luxury of a lakefront high-rise, only accessibility of the type she’s been grateful to enjoy. “I need to be able to get in and get around the unit and do as much as I can on my own so I don’t feel like a burden and some thrown-away lump of meat that someone else has to cater to.”