Driving by the CHA. Residents and Former Residents Telling Their Stories

A group associated with AREA Chicago has been working for a little over a year on the CHA Drive By Project, an attempt to gather and archive audio narratives from current and former residents of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), particularly those affected by the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. As our work progressed, we became aware of other groups and individuals with similar goals. The straightforward mission we started out with—to record and preserve histories of CHA residents—quickly became more complicated. Where did our efforts fit into the long and complicated struggle for equitable housing in Chicago? Was our approach the right one? What would benefit residents the most? Which critical issues lack visibility in the public dialogue surrounding housing rights? With these questions in mind, we decided to ask journalists, researchers and activists long-engaged in public housing advocacy work for their advice. In October, the Drive By group convened a panel event, “Living CHA Histories,” at the Jane Addams Hull- House Museum. Panelists who spoke at the event have worked and continue to work on a number of compelling research and narrative projects around public housing:

Jamie Kalven , journalist, human rights activist, and a founder of the Invisible Institute, worked with residents of Stateway Gardens on a publication called The View From The Ground  and continues to serve as a consultant to the Henry Horner Residents Committee. Audrey Petty is an English and creative writing faculty member at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; she is working on an oral history compilation of high-rise public housing residents. UIC  urban planning researcher and public housing advocate Janet Smith co-directs the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood Improvement, a research center that works to improve the conditions and lives of people in the Chicago region. Roberta Feldman, Professor Emerita at UIC’s School of Architecture, is an architectural activist, researcher and educator; her current research focuses on affordable housing and public housing design. Ethan Michaeli is the Executive Director of We The People Media, an organization dedicated to helping low-income people control their own media and home of the Residents’ Journal , a magazine written by and for public housing residents. Anne Dodge, who moderated the panel, is an urban planner and project manager for arts and community development organizations; recently, she worked as the oral history project manager for the National Public Housing Museum.

The major themes that emerged during the panel discussion might comprise an agenda for framing (and reframing) the conversation around public housing in Chicago.

 

housing is a human right. 

“[In] all of the work I’ve done before coming to Chicago and in Chicago, really, the underlying value is that housing is a human right,” stated Feldman. Michaeli pointed out how the question of housing as a right is really a false one: “Regardless if we declare housing as a human right, most people in this society are going to claim housing as their right. We’ve created a kind of artificial debate in society about whether or not housing is a human right—people have decided for themselves.”

 

all housing is public housing.

Dodge touched on an often-overlooked reality: “Everyone gets a tax credit. Any time the federal government gives you a thing—including a road in front of your house—you are living in public housing.”

Michaeli pointed out that this has serious implications for the way public housing is framed as a public issue—and in projects like Drive By. To separate public housing from the myriad other issues that affect the health and well-being of individuals reinforces old stigmas and confuses underlying issues. He stressed: “To the extent that you separate public housing off, under a microscope— make it seem like something different than federal dollars that go into building a highway—to the extent that you guys talk about it as something any different than that… you’re making the problem worse.”

Smith echoed Michaeli’s comments: “If we isolate public housing to study it, we lose sight of the fact that it’s really a part of a larger continuum of options for people in our country.”

The fight for equitable housing is a fight for visibility.

With the demolition of Chicago’s high rises and CHA’s focus on mixed-income development, the visibility of public housing in Chicago has diminished. “There are a lot of people still in public housing,” said Smith, “That’s a big myth that needs to be dispelled— that public housing is gone in Chicago. It is not gone.” Michaeli noted, “There are today 130,000 people who live in public housing in Chicago. That is a large population of public housing residents in Chicago, historically speaking. And the number is growing every year.” Feldman pointed out that the demolition program didn’t end with highrise developments—low-rises have also been demolished. She noted that many of these buildings could have been renovated at a fraction of the cost of demolition.

Kalven explained that the Plan’s demolition program has affected the overall visibility of low-income individuals, their rights, and the  places they live: “[The] city effectively disappears places, populations, communities and personal identities—on a scale that you should be frightened of, you should stand in awe of, you should ask, ‘How could this possibly happen?’”

He continued, “What was overwhelmingly successful was the demolition program, the program of disappearing people, pushing them out into invisible areas. The high-rises were overwhelmingly visible.”

And the effects of the demolition program don’t end with residents, Kalven notes—they affect the social conscience of the city as a whole: “A by-product of [this] massive restructuring of the central city through the Plan for Transformation and related policies is also a restructuring of our moral imaginations as citizens of the city. Who we can see, and who we can’t see. Who’s visible, who’s invisible. How issues are constructed, or how they evaporate.”

 

question the official narrative.

Particularly in the context of the increasing privatization of public housing, panelists underscored the importance of questioning official justifications for current housing policies. They emphasized the failures of mixed-income housing, explaining that the principle of social integration advocated by mixed-income’s supporters has been compromised by the ulterior motives of private interests. The interests of developers and real estate speculators cannot be ignored: they are fundamental parts of the equation. Speaking to projects and voices that seek to deconstruct the official narrative, Michaeli stated, “You are going up against money. You are going up against people who, this is not just their livelihood, this is how they’re getting rich. And they’re not Democrats or Republicans— they’re both.” Echoing the point that focusing exclusively on public housing obscures the bigger picture, Smith pointed out that mortgage and foreclosure crises are intimately related to the influence of private interests: “I think they’re part of the same set of strategies, which is using the land to capitalize on and accumulate wealth. So it’s a land grab in different forms. And public housing residents were calling it a land grab, not me.”

 

acknowledge the story’s complexity.

Feldman noted, “I think one of the things we all have to start to try and figure out is how to broaden the audiences, because that narrative, the conventional wisdom, is so powerful— it is just so damn powerful—so how do we chip away at it?” Kalven cited the ways in which poverty and exclusion function as a “narrative phenomenon,” snaring people in stereotypes before their stories can even be told. From that perspective, “People already know your story before they know anything about you. Because they know all the facts about you—the color of your skin, your sexual preference, and in the case of public housing, your address. And that dynamic is so incredibly powerful. So you have to think strategically and maybe subvert a lot of things just to create some space for resident voices to be heard, for your own voice and your own critical perspective to be heard.”

On the experience of writing her book, Petty reflected: “I think part of what I struggle with is keeping honest with myself about the book being complex. And the way that when you do step into these waters, they’re immediately fraught. That people know your story as they see you coming. And the people I’ve interviewed and gotten to know—and these have been multiple conversations, and I’ve known some narrators now for the past two years—but they’re aware of that too. It’s this anticipation that I’m expecting the received story.”

She continued, “What I think has been helpful along the way is to keep going and to go deeper and to come back for that fifth or sixth interview or to know someone for two years, and to meet someone else, and then to not be satisfied. You know, I thought this book was done a year ago. And I think that’s my lesson, even as I can’t claim any answers.”

 

hope springs from grassroots. 

Kalven noted that he and his peers often “get recruited a bit too much into talking about this in terms of social policy as opposed to people’s individual adventures, fateful, and mysterious, and matters of character, and luck, and just what happens in a life, that’s not all governed by policy.” Starting with the personal is one way to subvert complex and overbearing received narratives; the unexpected and unstructured memory or moment can start to build space outside of the rote and ordinary.

Feldman reflected on how autobiography can function as an act of resistance, both in terms of challenging inequity and maintaining a sense of self-worth: “When I wrote the book, it was my idea to call it The Dignity of Resistance , and the reason for that was what I learned from the people that I was working with. That it was obviously important to win these modest battles… But winning is not the only thing. Part of it is sustaining your own sense of self and dignity. And I think you can tell those stories in a way that gives a sense of humanity to these stories of such hard, real oppression and the pushing back against it.”

 

out of high rises and into the voucher program 

Through the conversation held at Hull House, we gained a broad perspective on housing in general and the myriad social and economic forces that shape public housing in Chicago in particular. While these complex ideas are dissected and debated in writing, research, projects and policy, 130,000 Chicagoans continue to live in CHA housing. The high-rises have been torn down, but there are 40,000 individuals on the waitlist to receive a Housing Choice Voucher. From the beginning of our project, the goal has been not only to give voice to underrepresented stories of inequity, but also to explore current issues in Chicago public housing and, where possible, to spotlight resources helpful to both public housing residents and anyone interested in understanding more about this multifaceted problem.

As CHA undergoes a review and recalibration of the Plan for Transformation, public housing residents continue to attempt to navigate a flawed system. Many residents displaced from high-rise housing have entered the Housing Choice Voucher Program, although far fewer than were expected by the plan. As of 2010, there were about 35,000 voucherholding households in the Chicago area, and around 3,800 of those were families affected by the Plan for Transformation. Voucher holders face a lack of affordable housing stock, discrimination and bureaucratic red tape, all of which threaten the holder’s ability to rent successfully in the private market.

The goals of the Plan for Transformation were radically set off course by the housing and economic crises that occurred after its implementation. Individuals attempting to step up and out of CHA buildings and into the private market with the assistance of a voucher face the same challenge experienced by homeowners and renters across the country: foreclosure. Today, approximately 10% of Chicago’s rental units are in foreclosure, and the affordable housing units sought by voucher holders are particularly prone to foreclosure. While this problem is experienced nationwide, its effect is doubled for a voucher holder; being evicted from a subsidized unit is grounds for termination of a voucher, thereby endangering the holder’s ability to rent or afford any future housing.

All voucher holders must follow a set of rules called “Family Obligations,” which are outlined in the CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Participant Guide. These “Do’s” and “Don’ts” include some items familiar to every renter regarding subleasing and maintaining the premises. Others, such as informing the CHA of extended absences, are vague and can be easily misconstrued. Recently, the CHA has become more active in enforcing these provisions, resulting in the discontinuation of the voucher for many families, according to Samira Nazem of the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing (LCBH—www.lcbh. org). Nazem, who was formerly an attorney at the CHA, believes that the recent increase of crackdowns on voucher holders violating the terms of the program may be an effort to create new opportunities for those who are on the waitlist. Once the CHA believes a violation of the voucher’s terms has occurred, they send a notice of Intent of Termination. The resident has 30 days to schedule an informal hearing to dispute the termination, but if the resident misses the meeting, never schedules the meeting or fails to receive the notification, the voucher will be terminated. Nazem estimates that 99% of residents who have their voucher terminated are evicted from their unit, as it is almost never possible to make ends meet without the subsidy.

The LCBH is one of many legal aid organizations that can assist voucher holders in understanding their rights and, when feasible, fight against termination. While the resources of many of these organizations are stretched extremely thin, there are five things that Nazem recommends every voucher holder be aware of in order to maintain good standing with the CHA.

Know your family obligations. Nazem advises that every year, voucher holders obtain a copy of the Family Obligations, as they frequently change. Understanding and adhering to the rules is extremely important, as you can lose your voucher if you violate them.

Stay in touch with the CHA. The CHA delivers all notifications via the US Postal Service. If you fail to check your mail regularly, you could miss important information. Missing a meeting regarding your voucher can be grounds for losing your voucher. To make sure that you’re in good standing with the CHA, call every six months or so to make sure there is no missing documentation and check on upcoming appointments.

Go to the termination proceeding. If the CHA notifies you that you’re in violation of voucher rules, you have the right to be heard. Schedule a hearing and attend it. If you lose there, know that’s not the last step. There is an appeals process for those who have lost their subsidy, although Nazem believes that most residents are unaware of its existence.

If you’re in foreclosure, get your case sealed. Many renters are also unaware that if you are evicted due to foreclosure, you have a right to have the case sealed. Once sealed, the eviction will not affect your credit or show up on a background check. (This is true for any renter evicted due to foreclosure!)

Know that there are legal aid organizations out there that can help you. There are many resources available to CHA residents, but navigating them and finding the appropriate help for your problem can be difficult. Nazem says the first step is to contact CARPLS (Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, 312- 738-9200, www.carpls.org). CARPLS works as triage for legal aid and can refer you to the most appropriate resources for your problem. In the case that you cannot find legal aid, CARPLS can assist you in representing yourself. They also run a help desk in Daley Center room 602. Services are free to low-income residents of Cook County.

Understanding your rights and the resources available to you are the best first steps for anyone facing housing problems, from market rate renters to CHA residents. Alone, legal aid cannot defeat institutionalized biases and legalized forms of discrimination against voucher holders. In the City of Chicago, it is explicitly illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a renter based on the fact that they use a Housing Choice Voucher. Unfortunately, this is not true in all of Cook County. The Cook County Human Rights Ordinance contains protections against all sorts of discrimination but contains an explicit exception for voucher holders. Studies have shown that this legal form of discrimination is used to mask discrimination of protected statuses, such as disability and race. The Metropolitan Tenants Organization (www.tenants-rights.org) has further information on the problem and the ways in which you can voice your opinion on the subject to your County Commissioner.

In addition to our amazing group of panelists, the authors wish to thank Rebecca Zorach, Sherry Williams and Samantha Hill for their leadership and contributions to Drive By and to the work shared here.

Want more information? Have a resource or story to share? Email cha.driveby.project@ gmail.com. ◊