By Alison Saldanha
In 2009, three years after her son Joseph was born, Diana Scott, a resident of West Rogers Park, filed an application for subsidized rental housing with the Chicago Housing Authority.
A decade later, with four children in tow, she remains a candidate on the CHA’s waitlist. Scott, 40, has moved homes three times in this period — twice to keep up with rising rents, and the last time, in 2016, to move into her father’s house when she found herself homeless.
“I feel like I’m worse off than when my parents were at my age — but I want to stay here because my kids are growing up and I need them to be comfortable and safe in a neighborhood where we don’t have to dodge bullets every day,” Scott said.
Over 144,000 Chicagoans are on the CHA’s waitlist, according to the agency’s 2019 second quarter report. Like Scott, many of these applicants are African American women who earn less than $30,000 a year, and as they wait for anywhere between three to 25 years for quality public housing in their original neighborhoods, they inch closer to homelessness.
Since 2012, the demand for affordable units has declined 8.9% while the supply of such units has dropped 15%, according to DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies 2019 report on the state of rental housing in Cook County.
“This means that supply is declining more rapidly than demand, putting pressure on low-income renters,” said Geoff Smith, executive director of the IHS.
On the North Side specifically, between the periods of 2012-2014 and 2015-2017, the share of renters in unaffordable units in Rogers Park and Uptown grew over 23%, an analysis of IHS data showed.
“With the rapid loss of these units, we see an increase in the need for more stable, permanent housing which is where the government comes in with provisions for public or subsidized housing,” Smith said. “As the market fails lower income groups, the need for this housing grows.”
But the long wait times for good quality public housing are “purging” applicants without addressing their need for fair and secure homes, said Noah Moskowitz, senior community organizer for housing at ONE Northside.
“Sometimes, when the CHA reaches out to applicants seven to eight years later, they send a letter to the old address from where they’ve long moved out and there is no way of them finding out before it’s too late,” Moskowitz said.
For its part, as of June 30, 2019, CHA has 15,988 public housing units. Meanwhile, over the last 10 years, the city government’s Chicago Housing Department has managed to construct 444 affordable units, government data shows. These units account for 10% of the 4,355 projects proposed, approved or taken up for construction. But the bulk, or 75%, of those completed units are studios and single rooms, too small for the average household size of more than two people on the waitlist.
Further, half of these are located in the South and West Sides of the city, where many, like Scott and her friend Keisha Delaney, 43, refuse to move to.
“You know, the amount of money we pay just to get by in these areas being gentrified — we would be homeowners by now if we weren’t scrounging all our money to pay for rent,” Delaney said.
“It’s sad but your children’s future is determined by where you live,” she added. “Because the education they get in West Ridge Elementary is different from Clinton Elementary, and things of that nature determine so much, so you gotta deal with the landlord charging extra to secure these basics.”
Ralph Edwards, program manager of Metropolitan Family Services, a community organization on the North Side that works with city youth to end gun violence, warned the wait for better housing is causing “friction” in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
“Residents want to live in the communities they grew up in but since they can’t fight back big developers with money, and don’t understand lobbying, they do other things while on the waitlist — that’s where the friction starts,” Edwards said.
Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education and managing partner of Chicago CRED, also known as Creating Real Economic Destiny, a nonprofit working to end gun violence in Chicago through economic justice, said the city must recognize these are often “crimes for survival.”
“Access to affordable housing, jobs, good education, healthcare — they’re all connected to Chicago’s gun violence,” Duncan said. “To reduce crime, you have to address this first.”
Moskowitz also pointed out that stable, secure housing could particularly play a critical role in reducing children’s exposure to gun violence.
“Moving frequently stops families from developing long term relationships with the communities they live in, their access to resources and networks,” he said. “If they have to work multiple jobs to make rent, they don’t get to be with their children, to nurture them and that leaves them vulnerable to poor choices and influences that end in violence.”
“I’m just grateful my kids are rounded young men and haven’t fallen to the wayside — we’ve lived in 20 different addresses, we’ve been homeless twice — that has to take a toll,” Delaney said.
Scott said the city should realize applicants want to change the narrative, but they need government help.
“We’re not asking them to give us the fish, we’re just asking for the fishing pole,” she said.