On the morning of July 8, 2015, Julian Castro, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, stood before a group of reporters and television cameras on Chicago’s south side. Flanked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Housing Authority’s acting CEO, Eugene Jones, Castro was in town to make an important announcement—a mea culpa of sorts on behalf of the American government. Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the nation had failed to reverse decades of segregation. “The truth is, for too long federal efforts have often fallen short,” Castro said, dressed in a navy blue suit and a black tie, his boyish face framed by a thinning hairline slicked into his signature side part. It was time, Castro said, for cities to step up and with help from the federal government do what the law requires and “affirmatively further” fair housing. But for cities and towns to receive federal funds, he added, they’d need to account for how the money would be used to reduce racial disparities. If they then failed to meet their objectives, there would be penalties.
Chicago was a fitting backdrop for Castro’s announcement, with its decades of housing policies that kept poor blacks stacked atop one another in decrepit high-rises and discriminatory real estate practices that confined them to deprived neighborhoods. Arguably, no city illustrates the failure of this landmark legislation more acutely. “We have a long history as it relates to fair housing,” Emanuel said when it was his turn to take the mike, his remarks hinting both at Chicago’s legacy of segregation and efforts to redress it. He stood in the footprint of the old Stateway Gardens, one of the city’s most neglected public housing projects. Emanuel was there to unveil its redevelopment, renamed Park Boulevard. Housing a mix of home owners and renters of various income levels, Park Boulevard was ostensibly a prime example of what Castro was there to promote: a bold and meaningful step in the direction of integration, opportunity, and equality.
But only a fraction of low-income Chicagoans end up living in such developments. The majority—nearly 46,000 people who have vouchers today—find their housing on the private market using government-issued housing choice vouchers, also known as Section 8. And just 11 months before Castro stood shoulder to shoulder with Emanuel telling the country we have to work proactively to integrate our cities, the CHA had slashed a small pilot voucher program aimed at doing just that.
Chicago has rarely found itself in the vanguard of progressive housing policy. But the program the CHA had curtailed embodied a new idea, a targeted intervention to combat the pernicious segregation plaguing Chicago. Under the official title of Exception Payment Standards, the “supervoucher” program, as it came to be called, offered a fraction of qualifying low-income families—those who had good credit and a clean rental history—access to Section 8 vouchers that were much higher than normal amounts, up to 300 percent of the fair market rent set by the federal government.
In Chicago, much to the dismay of housing experts, fair market rent is calculated by averaging rental prices for the whole city, the Gold Coast and Englewood alike. This means that standard vouchers are almost never enough to rent in wealthier neighborhoods, yet often wind up being worth more than the market rent in poor ones (which leads to landlords aggressively recruiting mostly very low-income, mostly African-American voucher holders into the poorest, most segregated parts of town to secure higher rents than they could otherwise). The supervoucher program worked to counteract this problem. If the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,139 a month with a traditional voucher, a household in the supervoucher program could get as much as $3,132 for a two-bedroom. What’s more, the supervouchers could be used only in neighborhoods with low poverty and a low concentration of subsidized housing, known in policy parlance as “opportunity areas.”
Critics of the supervouchers claimed the program—comprising less than 2 percent of Chicago’s total Section 8 voucher recipients—was wasting taxpayer funds by placing low-income families in luxury high-rises like Aqua Tower while tens of thousands of families languished on the CHA’s voucher waiting list. Chief among them was then-congressman Aaron Schock, a fresh-faced Republican from Peoria, who demanded that HUD conduct an audit of the program and introduced a bill in Congress to restrict it.
Supporters, on the other hand, saw the expansion of exception rents as one of the housing authority’s most innovative programs to date, one that finally pushed the needle, if ever so slightly, toward integration. Larry Pusateri, an affordable housing developer and CEO of Chicago-based VeriGreen Residential Development, puts it this way: “If you are sincerely trying to integrate, why are people not in the Aqua Tower?”
Still, in the wake of incessant media coverage—and preempting the results of a government audit—CHA scaled back the program, dramatically reducing aid for 244 families and forcing nearly as many to find new housing.
Documents obtained by the Reader through an open records request reveal a plan to improve housing options for low-income Chicagoans, the concept of which was approved by the feds. But the Chicago Housing Authority bungled the program’s execution by failing to keep track of its impact on residents and on the agency’s bottom line. In the end, Chicago’s nascent pro-integration strategy was killed before it ever had the chance to succeed.
Lorena, 47, remembers the day she walked into 215 W. Washington. It was her son’s 16th birthday, November 18, 2013. Driving by she had assumed it was a hotel. Now, sitting in the grand lobby, outfitted with a doorman, crisp white furniture, and bowls overflowing with complimentary apples and oranges, she was shocked that her Section 8 voucher might allow her to live there. The building had a pool, gym, and a game room. There were fitness classes for residents on the weekends.
But Lorena (who asked to be identified by her middle name because of the stigma attached to subsidized housing), was one of the lucky few supervoucher holders. Lorena was able to transfer a housing voucher from her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago after finding a job working for a property manager in Lombard. Thanks to her excellent credit and good track record with landlords, her Chicago voucher wound up covering $2,605 a month, allowing her to consider buildings as nice as this one.
When the building rep took Lorena up to the 32nd floor and showed her a two-bedroom apartment, she was sold. “I was like, I don’t even need to see any more units, this is it,” she recalls. From the kitchen and living room windows she could look out on Washington Street and see Millennium Park. “I had never lived in a high-rise. It was just so nice,” she says. There was a master suite with a bathroom, and her 16-year-old son, Doane (also his middle name) would have his own room and bathroom as well. Lorena applied on the spot and was approved. Six weeks later, on a snowy January day in 2014, she and Doane moved in.
Finding the apartment was a huge relief. Doane was a newly enrolled junior at Hyde Park Academy. Coming from Indiana, Lorena’s biggest fear had been moving to a dangerous part of Chicago and what it could mean for her son. “He’s truly 100 percent a momma’s boy,” she says, her face softening as she reads a text message he just sent.
But she was well aware of how young black men like her son can be stereotyped by the police. Then there was the crime and gangs to consider. “I wasn’t worried about him joining no gang,” Lorena says. “That’s just not him. He has a mind of his own, he’s not easy to influence—his main concern is school.” But she’d heard plenty about gang violence in the city and knew a five-foot-five black teenager with dreadlocks could become a target in some neighborhoods.
Living at 215 W. Washington eased Lorena’s fears; she drove Doane to and from school, but she never worried about him getting around safely on his own in the Loop. Her commute to work in Lombard became more manageable. Soon, their life developed a comfortable rhythm.
How to get a “golden ticket”
Unknowingly, Lorena had moved into her new apartment in the middle of a shifting debate around fair housing. She arrived in the city just as the CHA, faced with a drastic shortage of affordable units in more prosperous parts of town, was experimenting with a new approach to integration.
For decades, housing policy experts and social scientists have debated both the impact of growing up in a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty and how best to break up such pockets while helping those who live in them. A central question is whether state and federal money should go toward affordable housing and investment in high-poverty neighborhoods, or whether the money would be better spent offering low-income families the opportunity to move.
The debate was born here in Chicago. In the late 1960s, public housing residents sued the CHA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for racially segregating public housing tenants and constructing the buildings only in poor, black neighborhoods. The case against HUD, Hills v. Gautreaux, went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1976 the residents won. The court ordered the federal government to allow 7,100 low-income families living in Chicago public housing to take vouchers and move to majority-white suburbs, where poverty was low and a select number of landlords had made a commitment to taking them. Studies of this mobility program in the 1980s showed positive outcomes: those who moved were more likely to find jobs, their kids more likely to finish school and go to college. And though it had been predicted that such gains would come at the expense of social isolation, researchers found that families who moved integrated as successfully into their suburban neighborhoods as their counterparts who moved to south- and west-side neighborhoods in the city.
The results in the Chicago area were so promising that in the early 1990s the federal government decided to try out mobility programs in cities around the country. Results from that experiment, released in 2011, were disappointing, showing little upward mobility for families with children who moved to less poor areas. In 2015, however, a longer-term study of the same program by Harvard economists found results more in keeping with the earlier Chicago findings: strong economic and educational gains, and significantly better odds for youths to escape poverty. It seemed that mobility had finally proved itself viable.
But as Lorena settled into her new apartment, her son doing so well in school that he was ready to graduate a year early, no one was keeping track of the mobility program’s viability in present-day Chicago. From the time news of supervouchers broke in the summer of 2014, the CHA faced a media firestorm and was accused of misappropriating funds. Even Mayor Emanuel chastised the agency for going “awry.” Yet the CHA’s experiment was actually well within the purview of a previous agreement it had with the federal government.
In 1999, Mayor Richard M. Daley was looking to remake the city’s public housing by launching the so-called Plan for Transformation. Billed as a ten-year undertaking, the plan involved demolishing tens of thousands of units of public housing and greatly expanding the Section 8 voucher program. To execute the unprecedented overhaul, the city needed $1.5 billion from HUD and more control over its finances—a possibility only if the CHA was included in a new laissez-faire HUD pilot program known as Moving to Work.
Participating in the program meant reduced federal oversight so that local housing authorities could have “the flexibility to design and test various approaches” to housing assistance, according to the agreement. The designation was initially awarded to 24 “high-performing” agencies with proven track records for budgetary efficiency and strong management.
Despite being a poster child for corruption and financial mismanagement, in 2000 the CHA was among those selected by HUD for the program. This baffled observers throughout the country. Today the CHA remains the only one of 42 housing authorities to have gained initial acceptance to the program by a “direct selection.”
In 2009, Daley bragged that it was his own diligent stumping in Washington—taking his case directly to President Clinton, then President George W. Bush—that helped get the housing authority into the program. Once it was, all CHA had to show was that its various initiatives were working towards achieving Moving to Work’s three core objectives: achieving greater cost effectiveness, increasing housing opportunities, and offering incentives to families whose heads of household were actively working or seeking work.
This is why, in 2010, when CHA officials and housing advocates proposed the supervoucher program, the agency dove in. It seemed logical and innovative, experts figured, to see what more money could do for a small subset of voucher holders: those who could meet the rigorous credit- and background-check requirements of higher-end buildings when the vast majority of Section 8 families were still stuck in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and higher crime rates.
At the supervoucher program’s peak, 766 voucher households received some form of exception payment, a third of them collecting amounts above 150 percent of fair market rent, according to HUD as well as CHA documents obtained through an open records request. Since the program started in 2010, only 22 households have received payments hitting the 300 percent cap.
“These were folks that wanted to do better,” said Chris Klepper, the executive director of Housing Choice Partners, the agency that partnered with the CHA in offering guidance to families interested in moving to opportunity areas where supervouchers were used. And housing experts across the board, from developers to lawyers to academics, agreed: These were top-tier voucher holders, so why shouldn’t they have access to premium housing options?
The CHA knew Section 8 vouchers were falling short of offering low-
income families true mobility. In a February 2015 letter to Kelly Anderson, the HUD regional inspector auditing the supervoucher program, CHA’s then-CEO, Michael Merchant, wrote that one reason the CHA decided to raise exception rents to 300 percent of the market rent from 110 percent was to allow voucher holders “to rent apartments in community areas on the North Side of Chicago.” He went on to write that without the exception payments, voucher holders (the vast majority of whom are African-American) “have a difficult time” finding apartments in that part of the city, leaving the south and west sides as their only options.
Plus, developments like Park Boulevard cost more than $150 million to build, so dishing out thousands of dollars more a month for higher rents was actually cheaper in the short term than building more public housing units, which the authority was woefully behind on anyway. What’s more, the cost of the program at its peak—$4.8 million in 2014—was a small slice of the CHA’s $1 billion budget, nearly half of which is allocated solely to vouchers.
“If you are sincerely trying to integrate, why are people not in the Aqua Tower?”
—Affordable housing developer Larry Pusateri
On June 10, 2014, U.S. rep Aaron Schock stood before members of Congress with a proposal to curb voucher exception payments, arguing that they “reward a few at the expense of so many” and “allow some families to, in essence, hit the lottery.”
The next month, news of the supervouchers started to spread. Stories appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business and on local TV networks. A Crain’s editorial cited the program as “an apparent waste of money, even if the numbers are small” and asked “how are the lucky winners selected? Are politics and favoritism at work?” Some landlords and property managers of buildings that had accepted voucher holders were complaining too. “This is nuts,” property manager Tony Rossi told Crain’s. “Do [voucher holders] really need a 25th-floor apartment with a lake view? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The week that news of the exception rents broke, attorney Allison Bethel was on vacation from her job as director of John Marshall Law School’s Fair Housing Legal Clinic. Bethel has represented many voucher holders in discrimination cases, and when she returned from her trip, her voice mail was filled with concerned calls from them.
The message from CHA to her clients was “get out now,” Bethel says. “Many of them, it really disrupted their lives. . . . They had moved and they understood that they were not guaranteed this in perpetuity, but they certainly didn’t think they would be ousted within a year, or so quickly.”
On August 29, 2014, Lorena received a letter from the CHA informing her that effective August 11—more than two weeks before the letter was postmarked—the CHA would only approve exception payments of up to 150 percent of the fair market rent. Lorena’s share of her monthly housing payments would go from $95 to $1,390; the CHA would cover just $1,310, instead of the $2,605 it covered previously. “Mentally, I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it,” she says.
In the end, there was no legal ground to halt what Schock had set in motion, as the CHA had made no commitment to residents about how long they’d receive the exception payments. Bethel and her staff, along with other fair housing groups, were, however, able to halt the relocation of the 244 households whose exception rent was above 150 percent until their leases were up or their vouchers were up for renewal, the last of which turn over in 2018. “We were able to limit the harm,” she says.
Still, as the summer turned to fall, voucher holders kept calling Bethel, each one more deflated than the next. “The calls changed from being angry and frustrated to sad and then resignation. And now people are just so disillusioned with the whole thing,” Bethel says of the program. “Most people who come to me are not looking for a great legal case,” she says. “They are looking to get a house.”
In August 2014, though the CHA had already moved to curtail the program, HUD’s Office of Inspector General launched an audit at Schock’s urging. The office requested reams of data and interviewed HUD and CHA staff, investigating how the housing authority had come to set supervouchers at three times the fair market rates and why.
The audit revealed that the program was giving exception payments to 766 families, costing the CHA $4.8 million a year, less than one-half of 1 percent of its total annual budget. In addition, the report noted that CHA started that year with $220 million in reserves for the entire voucher program. That number backed up the findings of a study released six months earlier by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based bipartisan think tank. It claimed that between 2004 and 2012, the CHA averaged an annual surplus of $90 million while issuing far fewer vouchers than funding allowed—13,534 fewer a year since 2008, to be exact.
Schock also complained that tens of thousands of low-income families languished on a voucher waiting list. However, in 2014, the real number was far less: 332, according to CHA. (In contrast, the separate waiting list for public housing units was more than 11,200, according to the housing agency.)
What crippled the CHA’s defense of exception payments most of all, though, was its lack of institutional memory. During the life of the supervoucher program, the CHA was helmed by four different CEOs. The churn meant that no one could produce for HUD investigators documents that explained how the agency arrived at the 300 percent cap in 2010. “We don’t know exactly why 300—I think that was a safe number just to be able to capture and give people flexibility,” says Michael Merchant, who headed the CHA when HUD launched its audit.
In the end, HUD’s inspector general found that the CHA “lacked the documentation” to justify its master plan for supervouchers and prove that it was “reasonable and cost effective.”
(Some CHA sources have claimed that the 300 percent cap was based on a 2010 market analysis, but the CHA was unable to provide these documents to the federal government or the Reader.)
Merchant, who’s now the director of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, emphasizes that the vouchers covering the full 300 percent were only supposed to be used for “extreme situations,” such as a person in need of handicapped-accessible housing.
The CHA’s own records show that throughout the life of the program only 22 households had vouchers that maxed out at the 300 percent exception payment. Additionally, in response to the inspector general’s inquiries, the CHA conducted a retrospective housing market analysis for 2010, which revealed that the Near North Side and Lakeview had more housing units than any other neighborhood, but required nearly 300 percent of the fair market rent to become accessible to families with children.
Records also show that from the start of the exception-rent pilot, CHA was transparent with HUD about its objectives and the local housing authority’s cost. In fact, it had come to an understanding with the federal agency that cost management wasn’t the program’s driving factor. In CHA’s 2010 proposal for the program to HUD, the housing authority said it sought to revise the objective of exception payments, from “reducing costs and increasing housing options to only increasing housing options for low-income families.” CHA’s primary concern was no longer how much the subset of supervouchers cost, but rather what options it could provide low-income families to get out of high-poverty neighborhoods. Documents show that in 2010, when HUD asked CHA about the anticipated cost savings from the exception rents, CHA replied: “there is no anticipated amount of reduced costs.” HUD approved the change of language. As such, every subsequent annual report states only one statutory objective for the supervoucher program: “Increase housing choices for low income families.”
During the audit, in September 2014, CHA provided HUD’s inspector general with a financial analysis of people in the program who were receiving higher exception payments. The analysis showed that if the exception payment cap was dropped to 150 from 300 percent, only 9 percent of families would be able to afford their current units, or 21 families out of 234. Despite the fact that hundreds of people like Lorena were likely to be priced out of their homes—and despite HUD’s 2010 approval of CHA’s revised objectives—investigators determined that CHA was in violation of its Moving to Work agreement.
Both HUD and CHA sources say the inspector general’s findings were frustrating after the two agencies had collaborated on the pilot. Once the report was published, however, HUD had no choice but to enforce the findings—the Moving to Work agreement with the federal government cited all three objectives. But not only did HUD enforce the report’s findings, last winter it asked the CHA to conduct a thorough financial analysis (yet to be completed) of the original supervoucher program. Based on the conclusions of the analysis, the agency could be asked to reimburse HUD for “unreasonable” voucher payouts.
Regardless of its reputation as a golden ticket, many Section 8 families who received a supervoucher found that, despite having more money to work with, they still faced discrimination.
In spring 2013, Erika Weaver received a letter of acceptance from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, a goal she’d had since she was 14 years old. Then 39, Weaver was living with her three children, 17-year-old son Kylon and two daughters, Tayler, 14, and Morgan, nine, in Mattoon, a small town three hours south of Chicago. Weaver worked at Lake Land College there, and had a Section 8 voucher from the local housing authority to help pay for her three-bedroom apartment.
That May, she began to search for a new place in a Chicago opportunity area, where supervouchers were provided as part of the CHA’s mobility program. On paper, Weaver was the perfect candidate. She had a credit score well above 600, no eviction record, and no criminal history. She had also managed to save $4,000 for a security deposit and move-in fees. Weaver’s priority was finding an apartment in a safe neighborhood with a good public high school, “a place that would be comfortable for my family, moving from a small, rural town into the city,” she says. After driving around different neighborhoods, she and her children decided Lincoln Park was their top choice.
But Weaver, who is African-American, quickly realized that even with access to CHA’s new supervouchers, finding affordable housing in a prime Chicago neighborhood wasn’t easy. “We had a few places that said, ‘Yes, we love her, we want to do this!’ ” Weaver recalls. “Then when they found out I had a voucher they would say no.” Eventually Weaver told her real estate agent to alert people up front that she had a voucher and see if they were still willing to show her the apartment. “I would say out of ten at least seven canceled.”
Weaver continued her apartment hunt throughout the north side over the summer of 2013. But by August she still hadn’t found anything, forcing her to defer law school until the following academic year. The decision was “traumatic,” she says. “I think I cried for two weeks.”
A year later, Weaver was still spinning her wheels—there was a shortage of family-size apartments in neighborhoods with good public schools, and when she located one, landlords continued to reject her application. Come fall 2014 Weaver was still apartmentless, but she had to start law school or lose her deposit.
By then, her son Kylon had graduated high school, so she enrolled him at Harold Washington College in anticipation of the move to Chicago. They spent the first semester sleeping at a friend’s house, Weaver regularly dipping into her savings to pay application fees anywhere between $75 and $90 apiece for apartments that continued to fall through. When she could no longer afford their security deposits, she gave up searching in downtown buildings altogether.
Yvette Jones has been a real estate broker for 22 years and works with many voucher holders. She says that out of ten listing agents or landlords she might reach out to, “maybe one” will be open to leasing the unit to a Section 8 client, supervoucher or not.
Chicago is one of the few places in the country that bars discrimination based on a renter’s source of income, including vouchers. The law is supposed to protect voucher holders like Weaver, but it’s rarely enforced, and when it is, the penalty for landlords is only $500. According to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, which investigates discrimination cases of every sort, only about 60 voucher-related rental discrimination complaints are filed every year in the city.
Bethel, the fair housing lawyer, says that this is because legal action against discriminatory rental practices is slow and rarely rewarding. Her clinic usually tries to resolve the issue by attempting to persuade offending landlords to “change their decision voluntarily.” Many landlords and property managers simply don’t know how the voucher program works or that they are legally bound to accept voucher holders if they meet other requirements such as credit and background checks, she said.
In January 2015, after having searched for almost two years and trying to secure more than 40 units, Weaver threw in the towel. She wouldn’t move to Chicago after all. “The process should not be that exhausting,” she says.
She’s now in her second year of law school at Loyola but still lives in Mattoon. Every Sunday, Weaver takes a three-hour train ride into the city to stay with her grandmother, then commutes another hour to Loyola’s downtown classrooms by public transit. On Wednesday nights she returns home to spend the remainder of the week with her children.
“Trying to move to Chicago was one of the most disgusting and deplorable experiences I’ve had,” Weaver says. When landlords saw she was in law school they were impressed and motivated to rent to her. “Then they hear that I have a voucher and they feel like I’ve defrauded them in some way.”
“People resent lower-income people living around rich people. I think that’s what this is all about.”
—CHA voucher holder Jackie Paige
Meanwhile, for a typical voucher holder, the vast majority of whom do not live in opportunity areas where exception rents were granted, discrimination on the part of landlords is only the first hurdle. Once a unit is secured, many must contend with poor property maintenance, unpredictable rent increases, unsafe neighborhoods, and frequent moves.
The Reader‘s analysis of CHA inspection data for 2015 shows that 69 percent of units paid for by CHA vouchers failed at least one inspection. (According to CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan, “It is common for owners to fail the first inspection, usually for minor reasons that are easily corrected.”) However, nearly a quarter of the units failed two or more inspections. Meanwhile, the owners of the seven buildings with the most violations that year received more than $4 million in total voucher payments from the CHA-nearly as much as the $4.8 million per year it cost to house all the supervoucher families.
The analysis supplied by CHA to HUD’s inspector general found that 53 percent of exception rent households had access to top-rated elementary schools in their opportunity area neighborhoods, compared to 15 percent of households in poorer neighborhoods.
There are other problems to contend with too. Jackie Paige, 52, has had a Section 8 voucher since the early 2000s. Paige is African-American and a native south-sider, and she wanted to live in the Hyde Park area so she could send her two children to Kenwood Academy. Her voucher, however, covered only enough for rent in the most decrepit and crime-ridden parts of the neighborhood. Her first apartment, on 54th and Maryland, was infested with rodents, she says. “I hated that place,” she recalls. “I couldn’t wait to get out.” She knew there were gangs in the area and that drugs were sold along Drexel Avenue, just a block away. After a few years she moved to a new apartment nearby, but it wasn’t much better.
Then, in summer 2002, when Paige’s son, Tarek, was nine and her daughter, Jameelah, was 12, she wasn’t able to afford summer camp for them. Tarek “hung out with people who did drugs, and they took him under their wing because I had to work,” she says, her voice heavy. Soon enough, a gang had pulled him in.
In 2009, after the rent went up in her second Hyde Park apartment, Paige moved to Bronzeville. Still, her son “continued his associations with the bad element,” Paige says. “He’d go back and visit them. Once that connection was made he never severed it. Even though I would move and get him away from that.”
At 3 AM on a day in November 2011, Paige got a knock at the door. It was the police. “[They] told me that my car was found and a body was in it. And they showed me [his] tattoos.” Tarek, then 18, had been shot to death.
Paige is grateful for her voucher; without it, she says, she would have had to live in even more dangerous neighborhoods. But she can’t help but wonder if living in a different neighborhood, a more prosperous neighborhood—perhaps with the help of a supervoucher—might have saved her son.
In 2012, two years into the CHA’s program, Paige qualified for a supervoucher. She found a South Loop apartment she knew she could afford. Her application was approved. But the deal fell through when the landlord realized she had a subsidy, Paige says.
In all, Paige moved four times in ten years. She now lives with her daughter (who just graduated from Roosevelt University) in a quiet part of Bronzeville, where her street is always plowed in winter; her building has a cleaning staff and a laundry room on each floor “so no long waits.” It’s not in an opportunity area, but she feels safe there. And she only needs to take one bus to get to her job at a Magnificent Mile department store. Though she never benefited from exception rents herself, she thinks they were a good idea and is disappointed by the CHA’s response to the controversy. “People resent lower-income people living around rich people. I think that’s what this is all about.”
“There is probably never going to be enough vouchers,” says Bethel, the fair housing attorney. “But it seems that reducing them so that all you’re doing is perpetuating segregated housing patterns as they already exist is not helping anyone. It is not helping the city. And, arguably, it’s illegal.”
So why did the CHA slash the exception rents program before it was properly evaluated, before it had a chance to succeed? The question is especially perplexing given the federal government’s renewed commitment to housing integration. The supervoucher program was by no means a panacea for the myriad problems facing precariously housed Chicagoans. However, it was the only strategy that targeted Chicago’s long pattern of segregation by offering the financing, unit by unit, to combat it.
The CHA didn’t have to rely on housing voucher holders in luxury condo buildings to put a dent in the city’s segregation patterns. However, the severe shortage of available rental housing in the city’s more affordable and integrated neighborhoods, combined with rampant discrimination, left the agency with fewer viable options. For example, a recent study by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found that on the northwest side—where rental prices are low enough to accommodate working-class families and neighborhoods are integrated—landlords turned away African-American voucher holders 58 percent of the time, “the highest frequency of refusal to rent” for this demographic in the entire city. The same study found that landlords “discriminated against African-American voucher holders 53% of the time, in all areas of the city tested except the Loop and Hyde Park.”
Even more than a year after scaling it back, CHA continues to be under fire for the exception rent program. Meanwhile, fair housing experts and advocates keep urging us to look at it in context, to not distort the issue or turn the conversation away from the conventional voucher program’s failure to challenge existing patterns of segregation.
Today, with the exception rent scaled back to 150 percent, the CHA reports that 12 of Chicago’s 77 community areas have fallen out of reach for families with vouchers. Among them are Lincoln Park and the Loop, but also more moderately priced neighborhoods such as Uptown and Bridgeport. More than 80 percent of the city is still accessible, at least in theory. By now, though, it’s clear the obstacles to finding safe, affordable housing are more complex than the numbers reveal.
Last May, when the Harvard study on the long-term benefits of mobility was published, housing secretary Castro told the New York Times he was energized by the new data—so much so that HUD was looking at altering funding so that some people moving to more expensive neighborhoods would be eligible for larger vouchers. He didn’t specify by how much.
There is also mounting evidence that keeping low-income people in segregated, shoddy housing is costing taxpayers significant money. In March, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond published Evicted, a landmark book on skyrocketing eviction rates among poor Americans. Desmond’s work focused on Milwaukee, but his findings are as relevant to Chicago. Only a small fraction of rent-burdened families (those paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent) benefit from vouchers across the country. In Chicago more than 40 percent of households in 73 of 77 community areas are rent burdened. And while a single person making less than $43,000 can qualify for a voucher, fewer than 7 percent of renter households in the city have one.
Milwaukee, like Chicago, has landlords who recruit voucher holders into poor neighborhoods to bring in more revenue than the market would. Desmond, the first to crunch the numbers, found that “overcharging voucher holders cost taxpayers an additional $3.6 million each year in Milwaukee—the equivalent of supplying 588 more needy families with housing assistance.” In Chicago—which has eight times as many voucher households than Milwaukee—using vouchers to pay for substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods is likely costing the CHA far more than the supervouchers ever did.
After months of trying to get answers from the CHA about her options, Lorena was notified that she’d have to move when her lease was up, in January 2016. With nowhere to go, she and her son moved into the Woodlawn home of her friend, a nail technician. The following week she sat at an orientation session hosted by Housing Choice Partners, where she and other voucher holders were told not to bother looking for a home downtown—the reduced exception payments would most certainly not be enough to cover the cost.
Nearly three months later, Lorena is still living in Woodlawn with her friend. “I’m sick of living out of a box,” she says, shaking her head in frustration. Her goal is still to move to a neighborhood where her son will be safe. To this day she doesn’t understand how a legislator from Peoria, three and a half hours south of Chicago, where median rents for a two-bedroom apartment were $705 in 2015 compared to Chicago’s $1,840, was able to exercise such power over her housing.
Sitting at a round metal table inside a South Loop Mariano’s, she gets worked up when she thinks about Schock.
“I think he made a comment like, ‘They got a golden ticket,’ ” she says of the former congressman, who in an ironic turn of events was forced to resign when questions arose over his misuse of public funds—among them spending $40,000 from his official office budget to redecorate his Capitol Hill digs to resemble the set of PBS’s Downton Abbey. As of press time, Schock had not responded to a request for comment on his campaign to restrict exception payments.
Digging into one of two overstuffed purses, Lorena pulls pages of letters from the CHA and printed e-mails of her frantic back-and-forth with the leasing office at 215 W. Washington. She pauses to check another text from her son, then continues, “A lot of these people, they wasn’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth. A lot of these people is trying to better themselves,” she says, addressing Schock. “They don’t want to stay in messed-up areas. They wanna live like you livin’. And then you come in here and you just put a whole damper on their dreams?”
But she’s also disappointed with the CHA. “They basically did what he said, honored what he said, and didn’t have our backs. No one stood up for us.” v
This story was produced as part of the Social Justice News Nexus fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.