Illinois state rep. Delia Ramirez stands in front of a Puerto Rican flag in Humboldt Park. Credit: Azadeh Khastoo

Freshman state rep Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago) from the 4th District says that it isn’t uncommon for people to forget that there are elected officials in Springfield making decisions that impact our daily lives in Chicago. “I believe there’s a reason for that,” Ramirez, whose district covers parts of Bucktown, Hermosa, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Ukrainian Village, and Wicker Park, tells me over Zoom in late July. “If you don’t know what your state rep does, you make it easy for them not to do their job and continue to get reelected.”

In recent months, Ramirez and her work have not gone unnoticed. In May, she proposed a bill that would have canceled rent and mortgage payments for cash-strapped Illinoisians struggling in the aftermath of COVID-19. After an uphill battle in Springfield, the bill failed to make it to the house floor for a vote. However, Ramirez and the coalition of housing advocates behind her were successful in pressuring state legislators to increase the amount of federal CARES Act funds the state will allocate for emergency rent and mortgage relief—almost doubling the budget from $210 million to $396 million.

I spoke with Ramirez about how the state plans to get these funds in people’s hands. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also spoke about her time growing up in Humboldt Park, what she learned from running a homeless shelter, and why people like me should be paying closer attention to state politics.

Justin Agrelo: You’re from Humboldt Park. What has it been like witnessing the gentrification that’s happening there?

Delia Ramirez: It’s been painful. When I sit by my windows, I look across and see that every single house in front of mine either has a new family that has no interest in getting to know the community, and then there are the other families still sitting on their front porch with a little bit of music on, talking about life, thinking, and wondering, how long will Doña Maria keep her house? How long will Don Luis be able to pay these property taxes before the developers who keep sending him letters convince him that his property needs so many renovations that it’s better to sell? And what role do I play?

You ran the Center for Changing Lives, a homeless shelter in Logan Square, for a number of years. How did you start working there?

The church I go to started the Center for Changing Lives. As a little girl, I’d go with my mom to volunteer in the kitchen or the food pantry. At seventeen, they were like, “Hey, we have a job for you. Do you want to be the mail lady?” I’m like, what’s a mail lady? “Well, you’re gonna be responsible for managing people’s mail who don’t have a permanent mailing address. They’re all experiencing homelessness.”

Now think about it. What’s the impact of a mail lady? Well, 20 years ago people didn’t have access to computers and e-mail the way they do now, so a lot of things came in the mail, and people had to respond that way. If a person doesn’t have a permanent mailing address, it’s really difficult to get a job, and the list goes on. In that space, in that little room, I had the experience of getting to know people who had experienced homelessness for ten, 15, 20 years or even just a month, but who were all stuck in a system that kept them homeless and poor.

You managed to work your way up from mail lady to executive director. What was it like running the place for almost nine years?

It was an organization that started in a church basement in a particular neighborhood that was drastically changing. Neighbors were literally moving in and saying, “That shelter has to go. It’s effing with my property taxes. This is an investment property that I intend to sell when this neighborhood becomes Lincoln Park.” To have to work with people who would literally tell me that the people I was helping were getting in the way of their profit making was hard. But in many ways it created the foundation for me to look at the systems and policies that make it possible for people to come into a neighborhood, occupy it, and push people out.

What did that experience teach you about people experiencing homelessness?

There is a system in place that keeps people homeless and poor and it’s so much bigger than any particular organization. One death in the family. Five people getting coronavirus in a multigenerational home. A loss of a job. Domestic abuse. No one chooses to be homeless. It can happen to anyone. But we still live in a world that makes it easy for you to become housing unstable. We don’t fund the resources necessary to prevent homelessness, to help people stabilize, or to end it.

The shelter was seasonal—it would close in June and reopen in October. Why is it that the guys who are coming in to pick up mail tell me in June “see you in October?” Do they not think that between June and October we can help them find shelter? So they think their experience is going to be this for the rest of their lives? When there is no real affordable housing and you’re pushing people out [of their homes] that is the reality.

When you’re putting two-thirds of your income towards rent and your landlord in Logan Square tells you, “Hey, I’m going to double your rent,” what do you do? Housing stability, for some people, feels nearly impossible to get to. And that’s because we don’t have any real control on how quickly a developer or a landlord can increase your rent. It’s becoming so impossible to be able to stay here.

You said in an interview on the Hoodoisie that you want to start a housing committee in the Illinois legislature, which does not currently exist. Why do we need one?

If there’s no specific committee with a chair that cares deeply about housing, then it means that any legislation that concerns your ability to keep a roof over your head—lifting the ban on rent control, property tax reform, money for homelessness—those bills that change all of that will go to committees that may not be friendly to that kind of legislation and they will die. So if you care about having a place to live at all, then you should care about a space where housing legislation is created and passed.

You helped pressure state legislators to increase the amount of CARES Act funds budgeted for rent and mortgage relief. Can you break down how the state plans to allocate the $396 million they’ve set aside for it?

One hundred and fifty million dollars will be going to rent relief. Tenants who couldn’t pay their rent since March [because of COVID-19] will apply for $5,000 of rent relief. Another $150 million will go to homeowners who need help with their mortgage. One hundred million will go specifically to the areas that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We know that in Chicago that’s in Black and Brown areas.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority is administering the funds. [Disbursements] will go out no later than August 15, which means the governor needs to extend the moratorium on evictions to give people enough time to apply for the program, get the checks, and stabilize before they end up in eviction court.

How do you feel about the even split that’s going to renters and homeowners?

I have been a critic of that split. [I wanted] most of the funds to go to tenants and if a homeowner could not get a mortgage forbearance, then we would step in and provide that assistance. Because with a mortgage forbearance, homeowners can add months to their loans without foreclosing. A tenant who can’t pay their rent for months just gets evicted.

How do people in Chicago support causes they care about in Springfield?

Power only concedes to power. Find out who your state rep, senator, and commissioner are. Find out who we are and ask us what we’re doing for the issues that you care about—make us have to tell you that. Because let me tell you, if you live in my neighborhood and you’re cussing me out about housing, that’s very different from me getting some automatic e-mail from some group that was sent to me by some lobbying group that isn’t even from my district.  v

This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.