Charges of racial discrimination have haunted the Chicago Housing Authority since its creation more than 50 years ago. Now the voices of protest speak Spanish.

Arrived from Guatemala in 1968, Raquel Gonzalez Sypien, 59, applied to the CHA nearly 20 years ago for a Section Eight voucher. Sypien says she will wait no longer.

“I am [an American] citizen. I vote. I had one of my children in the Marines. I pay my taxes,” Sypien says. “[We Hispanics] have rights too.”

The average applicant waits 14 years to receive a coveted Section Eight voucher, a rent subsidy that can be used anywhere a landlord will accept it. Sypien thinks her Latino background and the fact that she speaks only Spanish are the reasons her application has been even slower in coming. She says she lives on $476 a month in Social Security and pays $450 of that in rent. Her grown children help her meet her other expenses. If she received a Section Eight voucher her rent would drop to a third of her income, or about $159 a month.

Cases like Sypien’s are not many. That’s not because other Latinos are processed more promptly, but because so few Latinos who need public and assisted housing apply for it.

“The way public housing was set up has created the perception that public housing is for a certain group [of people],” said Carlos DeJesus, executive director of Latinos United. “And that group is not Latino.”

Latinos United and other Latino advocacy groups that focus on housing issues accuse the CHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of doing little to alter that perception. Latino advocates say that public housing information for Latinos is practically nonexistent, and that Latinos who apply for housing benefits go through longer waiting periods to receive them. As a result, these advocates say, Latinos’ occupation of public and assisted housing has historically been low, far below their housing needs.

“CHA has ignored Latinos. . . . It has not marketed itself to the Latino population,” said Hipolito Roldan, president of the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, an organization that administers the CHA’s scattered-sites housing units in some neighborhoods. “[CHA] has to affirmatively market to the [Latino] population. We [Latinos] knew nothing about the programs.”

Last year Latinos United, Hispanic Housing, and other housing advocacy groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the CHA, HUD, and three of the agencies’ top officials. It accused them of “discrimination against Latinos in the operation, administration, supervision, and funding of federally assisted public housing” in Chicago. Raquel Gonzalez Sypien was one of six individual plaintiffs.

Since last June the two sides have tried to find an agreement out of court. “We have put together a remedy proposal,” DeJesus said. “We are basically telling [CHA] what it will take to settle the suit.”

The CHA’s lack of responsiveness to Latino housing needs was argued in a 42-page report published a year ago by Latinos United before the suit was filed. “Latinos and Public Housing” described a serious disproportion between Latino population increases and poverty status and Latinos’ participation in CHA programs.

In the last two decades, the report said, Chicago’s non-Latino population decreased by 28.2 percent as the Latino population grew by 121 percent. In the last decade alone, the number of Hispanics in Chicago grew by 29.3 percent, to become 20 percent of the city’s residents.

As the numbers increased, so did the number living in poverty. Of Chicago’s Latinos, 23 percent live below the poverty line. They make up close to a quarter of the city’s poor. They face housing discrimination and rising rents. According to the Latinos United report, the Latino poor “spend an average of 74 percent of their annual family income on housing, sacrificing other essentials.”

Yet in the last 20 years, Latinos have never made up more than 3 percent of Chicago’s public housing occupants. As of 1992, according to Latinos United, only 2.25 percent of the CHA’s 42,000 housing units–the “projects,” elderly housing, and scattered sites–were occupied by Latinos. Only 1.56 percent of the 18,000 subsidized Section Eight units were held by Latinos.

“If the process was fair, the logical thing would be to allocate 25 percent of [public housing] benefits to Latinos,” DeJesus said. “That would make 15,000 units instead of the 1,000 currently available to them.”

But how could the CHA house more Latinos if they do not apply? “Latinos in Public Housing” reported that Latinos compose only 1.08 percent of the waiting list for Section Eight certificates and vouchers, and 5.41 percent of the waiting list for conventional and elderly CHA housing.

When “Latinos and Public Housing” came out last year, Robert Whitfield, then the CHA’s chief operating officer and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, attributed the low number of Latinos seeking public housing to the fact that most of it was not located in their neighborhoods.

Other observers argue that when Latinos are offered housing in CHA high-rises they often refuse it. Some suggest that Latinos refuse to live in black neighborhoods, where virtually all the CHA projects were built.

“That’s a racist argument. The reality is that not even blacks want to go [to the high-rises]; they are in such bad shape,” DeJesus said. “[High-rises are] substandard housing where security and other safety issues are horrendous. Moving into a segregated situation is very intimidating.”

Besides, he said, a Section Eight voucher can be used anywhere a landlord will accept them, and elderly housing units are found all over the city, with several of them in heavily Latino areas. Yet Latino participation in these programs is very low.

“With Section Eight people could go out of the state if they wanted,” DeJesus said. “The real reason is that the CHA didn’t let the community know that those programs existed.”

He said, “By word of mouth is how people find out about public housing. But there are no Latinos in public housing . . . and we don’t have staff at CHA.”

Latinos United reports that as of August 1992, Latinos accounted for only 4 percent of the CHA’s staff and 2 percent of its management. At the time, 16 percent of Chicago’s labor force was Latino.

Letting Latinos know about the agency’s programs was central to an agreement signed in 1989 between the CHA and the Latino Coalition for Fair Housing, which later that same year reorganized itself as Latinos United. The agency was expected to recruit Latino businesses and developers and to seek other contracts with Latino firms.

One of the primary goals of the agreement, signed by CHA chairman Vincent Lane, was 25 percent Latino occupancy in CHA housing by 1995. (The agreement specifically stated that 30 percent of the 2,000 new Section Eight vouchers the CHA was asking HUD for at the time would go to Latinos. But HUD, protesting that this smacked of a quota, turned down the request.) The CHA agreed to develop new outreach strategies to attract Latino applications, such as a Spanish-language phone line and Spanish-language advertising.

But Latinos United’s housing coordinator, Hector Gamboa, said those who thought the agreement would bring more Latinos into public housing were wrong.

“[The CHA] has not been very responsive, and what they have done is still very inadequate,” Gamboa said. “The situation is basically the same [as before the agreement]. Latinos are still underserved.” He said that as of 1992 only 1 percent of the firms signing CHA contracts were Latino. The agency’s Spanish-language brochures were poorly written, Gamboa continued, and the phone line turned out to be a Spanish-language menu shipping calls to phones that often aren’t even answered.

The appointment of Daniel Solis to the CHA’s nine-member board of commissioners was one of the corrective measures taken by the agency after the 1989 agreement. Solis is executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago (UNO), a Latino-advocacy group that’s recently conducted major citizenship and voter-registration drives.

“The [CHA] administration has not been sensitive to the needs of the Latino community,” Solis said. “Latinos have been discriminated against [by the CHA]. I think the record speaks for itself.”

Solis thinks a lack of information about CHA programs is only one of the problems.

“Public housing as it is is not attractive to Latinos. People are concerned about their safety in public housing,” he said. “Even the poorest of Latino families would have second thoughts about applying to public housing.” Solis was speaking primarily of the projects. “Other housing programs are more attractive to the general public, but they are also attractive to people presently living in high-rises,” he said. “Stands to reason that the people who get the first choice are the ones already in public housing.

“The scattered-sites program is more attractive to Latinos also, but there is the problem of the waiting list.”

Organized in 1937 under state and federal laws to provide housing for low-income Chicagoans, the CHA became an effective tool for preserving racial segregation during a period when the migration of southern blacks to Chicago reached 2,200 arrivals a week. By the 1950s integrationists had been removed from the CHA’s ranks, and more than 90 percent of the agency’s developments were rising in black neighborhoods. Today more than 84 percent of the CHA’s residents are African-American.

In 1969 a federal judge ordered the CHA to stop concentrating their housing in black neighborhoods and begin building apartments on sites scattered throughout white areas. Latino housing advocates argue that this Gautraux ruling simply introduced spot concentrations of public housing in Latino areas while only modestly improving Latino access to assisted housing.

“We are for scattered sites as long as they are scattered and not concentrated in the Latino community,” Gamboa said. “The program is supposed to be scattered throughout the city, in white areas also. That’s not happening.”

In 1987 the federal courts turned over further development of Gautraux housing to the Habitat Company, a private real estate developer. Philip Hickman, Habitat’s senior vice president, who directs the program, says that a thousand of the 1,600 scattered-sites units Habitat has built or is building are in Latino census tracts. He argues that this construction is so modest in scope that to speak of a concentration of public housing is an exaggeration.

DeJesus thinks differently. A year ago Habitat planned to build 130 units in one census tract in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood with a large Latino population. DeJesus said students there were already being bused out to other schools because of overcrowding, and the new units would have brought in hundreds of additional students. The project was scaled back to 77 units because of community pressure.

DeJesus said that if Habitat wants to build housing that will allow Latinos to remain in their communities, they can build it anywhere because “we are all over the city. In Belmont-Cragin there are five scattered housing units. There, Latinos are more than 30 percent of the population.”

Although the CHA is obliged under HUD regulations to promote its housing, that doesn’t happen, Latino critics contend. The scattered-sites program provides that half the units in a community should be made available to families that live there. But to apply they must know the units exist. In Pilsen, a community that’s almost 90 percent Hispanic, about a third of the residents belong to households eligible for public housing. Yet in 1991 just six applications were received for scattered-sites housing in that area, four of them from Latinos.

Hipolito Roldan’s Hispanic Housing administers the scattered-sites program in some of Chicago’s largest Latino communities, such as Humboldt Park and Logan Square. ” Latinos apply more because formal outreach gets done,” Roldan said.

Latinos United reported that as of 1992, 15 percent of the city’s scattered-sites units were occupied by Latinos. In Latino areas, according to Roldan, only 35 to 39 percent of the scattered-sites units had been leased to Latinos. Because of the small scale of the scattered-sites program–the CHA built just 775 units before Habitat took over–even if all the units had gone to Latino families barely a dent would have been made in Latinos’ need for public and subsidized housing.

By DeJesus’s reckoning, “There are $70 million in housing subsidies that [Latinos] are not getting”–but deserve.

Political changes at the national level threaten to diminish public housing. Congress’s rescission of HUD funds already allocated to the CHA for fiscal year 1995 could force the agency to operate with only 80 percent of its expected resources this year. More importantly, a proposed restructuring of HUD would mean that subsidies allocated directly to housing units would be replaced by more vouchers. What HUD calls providing more choice is to critics of the plan a way of eliminating public housing by transferring the affordable-housing responsibility from the federal government to the private market.

Last January wrecking balls opened a new era in Chicago public housing, as dilapidated Washington Park extension units were demolished. The CHA plans to raze thousands of units over the next two years, with no clear plans for replacing them.

“We know the current stock is a terrible housing stock [that] has to be improved,” DeJesus said. “Public housing as it is is horrible, but I don’t think the solution is demolishing.

“CHA is obligated to replace every single unit, whether occupied or empty,” he said. “But we are concerned that in the way HUD is changing, the public housing stock is going to diminish. That would not be a good situation for Latinos.”

However, positive results are expected from the ongoing negotiations surrounding the lawsuit. Gamboa said a settlement with HUD was imminent and one with CHA possible, but he declined to comment on specifics. He said he expects the CHA’s practices and attitudes toward Latinos to change. “It looks like they have realized they have to do something about it.”

CHA officials would not comment on the suit.

Filomena Seda, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, died a few weeks ago, her applications for Section Eight and conventional public housing still unanswered. Other plaintiffs say they are determined to keep the pressure on the CHA.

“Some think that because we don’t speak English we don’t have any power,” Raquel Gonzalez Sypien said. “I am going to fight for my Section Eight. I have rights too.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.