It’s a Thursday afternoon in September, and a tall woman with elbow-length blond hair is pacing outside the foreclosure courtrooms on the 13th floor of the Daley Center. Her platinum hair and assertive gait strike a sharp contrast to the rest of the crowd milling about–”harried-looking lawyers in conservative suits and visibly tense tenants fighting foreclosure.
Holly Krig is taking the lunch hour from her organizing job with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs to help the Ortiz family fend off foreclosure. The case is the latest battle that her grass-roots organizing group, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, is waging.
The group employs a range of tactics to fight eviction. It uses whatever legal resources are available and organizes public pressure campaigns against building management companies and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In some cases, the group has formed a human blockade to stop an eviction.
Krig founded the group with a committed core of three organizers in winter 2009, and its work has since focused on people in public and project-based housing, the latter owned by HUD but run by private conglomerates. Now, she plans to widen the campaign to encompass private foreclosures and evictions–”there are about 100 evictions scheduled each day in Chicago, she says.
Ultimately, Krig hopes to bring about a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, like the one called in 2008 by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, to continue to push her belief in housing as a human right.
Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin with few living-wage jobs, Krig says she knows intimately the sense of uncertainty engendered by growing up on the poverty line, and it has fueled her interest in her work.
“I know how vulnerable it feels to have no safety net, but mostly it made me angry,” she says. “I couldn’t understand the inequity. Thankfully, I still don’t. I’m still angry. We all have to be angry if we’re going to sustain the energy we need to fight back.”
The Chicago Reporter recently sat down with Krig to talk about her group’s campaign.
What was the catalyst for the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign?
It grew out of the fight against displacement already happening around the city, but the catalyst for our coming together around eviction was a visit from Ashraf Cassiem, a tenant organizer from Cape Town, [South Africa]. We were clear then that we had the beginnings of a group ready to do direct action and to take on whatever risks were necessary. He taught us about the Western Cape Town eviction campaign, along with the people’s land movement, reclaiming housing and housing as a human right in the post-apartheid neo-liberal era.
How has eviction organizing changed since the recession and the burst of the housing bubble?
You’d be surprised, not that much has changed. –¦ People struggling in low-income communities–”there is nothing new there. This recession has been hard, and it hit those communities the hardest, and yet eviction was already an issue. Most families are rent-burdened in Chicago; the idea of market rates and affordable public housing is based on the idea that you pay 30 percent of your income on rent and on housing costs, and a lot of low-income families are paying far more than that in rent. So they’re giving up any number of other things in order to cover their rent, and if there’s any kind of emergency that happens –¦ that all impacts whether or not you’re able to pay your rent. People are so close to eviction all the time for that reason. You’re late on your rent for a day, and you can get a five-day notice from your landlord. And unless you are able to pay that amount in five days or negotiate with them to figure out some kind of payment plan, that is grounds for eviction. –˜Well, you were late on your rent, that’s that.’
What is the problem you have with working with the legal system?
I feel like even if you win in court, you lose, because you’re really saying, –˜Oh yeah, this process works, you didn’t really deserve to be evicted, you didn’t really deserve to be fired–”but you’re not!’ The assumption is that there must be a just process here, and everybody who does get evicted or fired–”they deserved it. I feel like we need to not only work against this system but also to change it, to think about all the ways that we can build pressure and mobilize together to bring about more democratic alternatives as opposed to going through this ridiculous eviction or foreclosure court system.
What do you say to people who think those being foreclosed on were financially irresponsible?
I think it’s interesting that suddenly we have all these completely irresponsible people who were somehow responsible for creating this economic crisis. I hope most of us know now at this point that banks were very aggressively selling these mortgages to people and in no way verifying whether or not they could actually afford these mortgages. If a financial institution is really aggressively advertising to people that you can afford this, that this is the right decision for you, then a lot of people are going to participate in that. I think we can recognize that this is a very exploitive process. A lot of people have been put out of their homes for it, and it doesn’t do us any good to blame all of those individuals when what we are seeing now is completely destabilized communities and people becoming homeless.
Are there additional difficulties with the eviction or foreclosure of an undocumented family?
That’s actually something that we just started talking about, because the Ortiz family who own Rogers Park Community House is a Latino family, and they have had families that have come to them. A lot of people, whether you’re documented or not, don’t want to talk about the fact that they’re in foreclosure because they are bearing the shame of it as if they’ve done something wrong. In the case of undocumented families, I think that we’ve got to take on these cases as aggressively as anyone. Everyone has a right to housing, and we haven’t made a stipulation about who within the human population gets to have that right.
How do people in low-income, minority neighborhoods react to you coming into their community?
I think about that all the time actually, because I think that everyone has to be careful thinking about who they are coming into a community and what role they play. It has to be about building power in a community; it can’t be about some white person coming into a community and fixing it for you. We work together, but ultimately we talk about, –˜OK, well, tell us your story–”what’s your situation?’ and we can make suggestions based on what we’ve done before and what we think might work. But people have to decide what they want to do or maybe have a plan themselves for something that they would like to do. And we have to be led by that family or by that community to see how they want to deal with the situation.
What do you see as a realistic plan for fair housing within the system?
My sense is that we need to really think about just doing housing in an altogether different way, and one of the conversations that we had is to bring out a community land trust. There are a few examples of that in Chicago–”the West Humboldt Park community land trust seems to be one that’s working for people who are just really starting to get off the ground. It begins with a community ward becoming a nonprofit organization, and people from the community–”tenants and those who are interested in actually maintaining affordability in their community–”holding their properties as a community asset. That’s one example of the way some people have reformulated housing and kind of built some power around their communities.
Why do you believe that people have a right to housing?
It’s something that I believe because I don’t know what sense it makes for us to live in a civil society together if we’re not able to collectively meet certain needs for a basic, decent quality of life for everyone. If we’re not collectively responsible for that to each other, then I don’t know what we’re doing at all.