Shinette Johnson tacks off a list of amenities in an apartment she recently saw for rent in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “It was gorgeous,” she says. “Fireplace, master bedroom, my dream bathroom. The kitchen was a little tight, but it was very modern, with a nice little breakfast nook.”
The people listening murmur approvingly with every bit of description Johnson offers. Johnson is the education coordinator at Housing Choice Partners, an agency contracted by the Chicago Housing Authority to assist people with housing choice vouchers to move to “opportunity areas”–neighborhoods highlighted by the CHA because of their low poverty and little existing public housing. The vouchers are a form of rental subsidy provided to low-income families that can be used on the private market.
As part of Housing Choice Partners’ program, participants attend an orientation with Johnson, who goes over everything from finding a home to the potential benefits of moving to an opportunity area, and even the responsibilities of running a household.
CHA opportunity areas
Standing before a projector in Housing Choice Partners’ downtown office, Johnson displays a slide of the city map that is divided into blue and white areas. Huge swaths of Chicago’s South and West Sides, where many of today’s participants are from, are in white, meaning nonopportunity areas. The North Side is a sea of blue.
Over several hours, Johnson preaches the philosophy of geographic opportunity. The idea is that by moving to areas with low poverty and low crime rates, and a vibrant economic life, low-income families can more easily pull themselves out of poverty.
But a move to those places, like the River North apartment that Johnson’s clients swoon over, doesn’t happen as often as it could. Only $1 of every $10 spent on rents through the voucher program went to one of these low-poverty communities in Chicago. And the Near North community, where River North is located, lost more subsidized renters than any other between 2006 and 2011, an analysis of CHA data by The Chicago Reporter found.
In 2006, voucher-holders rented 195 units in Near North. By 2011, that number fell to 94. While those numbers might seem small, Near North actually ranks 13th out of 48 opportunity areas in Chicago. The numbers are small because the vast majority of families with vouchers live outside opportunity areas.
Johnson points to a Chicago map to explain why it’s so important to change that pattern. “If we move into one of those neighborhoods, we don’t have to swim across the water and jump across the bridge to get into these schools,” Johnson tells the families, pointing at the blue side of the map. “We can automatically enroll our kids.”
The incentives are significant. The CHA provides $500 toward a security deposit to a family who moves to an opportunity area and, most important, the voucher program now covers rents up to three times the market rate of the Chicago metropolitan area. These “exception rents” mean that, so long as a unit’s price is comparable to the rates in the rest of the neighborhood, a family should in theory have access to virtually all of the city.
The policies and funding are designed to promote mobility, yet the city’s housing choice voucher program has yet to lead to a sizeable deconcentration of poverty.
From 2006 to 2011, there was an increase of 522 units rented to voucher holders in opportunity areas. Nonetheless, according to the CHA, fewer than 10 percent of the 38,585 voucher households in Chicago were living in these neighborhoods at the end of 2012. And since 2009, the number has actually decreased by nearly 100 households, despite the implementation of exception rents in 2010.
Shinette Johnson instructs voucher holders who are interested in participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program on how to find apartments in the city’s “opportunity areas.” Photo by Tyler Stabile.
More to it than opportunity
Regina Rogers, a single mother of three, was one of a handful of voucher holders who took in Johnson’s advice at the orientation in late May.
Rogers is being forced to move because her South Shore apartment failed its inspections. She struggled with water leaking through her son’s bedroom ceiling, and her complaints went unanswered, she said. The Reporter’s investigation in July revealed that thousands of families have been living in poorly maintained government-subsidized units in recent years.
This is the third time in her three years that she will have to move. Rogers, is open to moving to an opportunity area, but having lived on the South Side her entire life, she’s hesitant to move away from the support system around her.
Her mother, who lives on East 89th Street, helps take care of her children. “Sometimes you get comfortable, which I am, but I’m irritated about the type of community I live in,” she says. “The violence is crazy. But a support system being close is important to me.”
She insists that she’d have no qualms about living in an area where, as an African American, she’d be in the minority, but is concerned about her son. “As a 13-year-old black boy, he’s already targeted,” she says. “If I put him in another environment, he becomes a spectacle. I don’t know if I want to deal with that, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Barriers to mobility
Christine Klepper, the executive director of Housing Choice Partners, acknowledges that, of the dozen or so participants attending any given orientation session—thus expressing an interest in moving to low poverty areas–on average, only 25 percent to 40 percent will end up moving to an opportunity area.
“It’s never the majority,” she says. “Sometimes they sign up and then decide it’s not what they want to do. Sometimes they sign up and can’t find what they’re looking for in the time frame that they have to find it. Sometimes other things like mom is taking care of the kids and they can’t work out a transportation plan that works. It’s not for everybody at any particular point in their lives.”
While some make the choice not to move to opportunity areas, other voucher holders who would like to do so run into obstacles that keep them out of low-poverty areas. If, for example, a voucher holder like Rogers did commit to living in an opportunity area, there is no guarantee that she would be able to find an apartment for her family due to persistent discrimination on the part of landlords–a problem that fair housing advocates say erodes voucher holders’ options in the market.
Chicago’s Fair Housing Ordinance forbids landlords from discriminating against potential tenants on the basis of their income source. The Cook County Board approved a similar ordinance earlier this year. And yet discrimination against voucher holders remains a problem, as the caseload at the Chicago Commission on Human Relations attests. In 2012, 70 complaints were filed with the commission claiming housing discrimination involving voucher holders. These complaints made up 72 percent of the agency’s housing cases.
The number of complaints shot up more than three fold since 2010, possibly because, as Klepper says, the coverage of higher rents in opportunity areas means that landlords no longer have an excuse to refuse tenants. “Before, rents were too high for the program, so landlords could easily say no and there was nothing you could do about it,” she says. “But now that the [allowable] rents are higher, landlords in these areas who are used to saying no can’t get away with it.”
While laws are in place to prevent discrimination, voucher holders rely on the willingness of landlords to accept their subsidies. Housing Choice Partners serves as a liaison between the CHA and landlords to try to get homeowners on board, but the latter’s consent is by no means guaranteed.
Betsy Shuman-Moore, the project director of the Fair Housing Project at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, sees first hand the extent, and effects, of discrimination against voucher holders. Her organization represents complainants in housing discrimination cases. “The program requires landlords to cooperate… and they are not,” she says. “One of the things that was supposed to happen in tearing down [the CHA] high rises is to allow voucher holders to have their choice of housing in areas throughout the city, and it just hasn’t happened that way.”
Back in the Housing Choice Partners office, Klepper exudes patience. A veteran low-income housing advocate, she has seen the slow pace of enacting change in Chicago but remains confident in the CHA’s current emphasis on mobility and is passionate about the stakes involved.
“Maybe mom didn’t have good schooling, but the biggest improvement is with her child,” she says. “It would be really nice to see that if you make this investment early on, get kids into better schools in areas without the trauma of crime, you can break the cycle of poverty.”
Last year, according to the CHA, 252 families moved to opportunity areas through Mobility Counseling Programs, down from 317 the year before. This is a slow trickle, but Klepper hopes that in the long term it will translate into tangible improvements. “You can’t just look at this CHA program separate from the gigantic racial mess that we have in this country,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to look to one little program to undo decades of institutional racism. We’re not going to undo that in 10 or 15 years. It took us a long time to get in this mess, and it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it.”
Voucher holders like Rogers have more immediate concerns than the broader implications of demographic shifts and mobility that occupy Klepper.
Three months after the orientation in late May and just days from her deadline, Rogers finally found a place, in a vintage high rise not far from where she had been living in South Shore, a nonopportunity area. At press time, she was waiting for a CHA inspection for final approval. Rogers went for it in part because there’s an elevator for her elderly father-in-law, and because the bus stop where her kids will wait in the mornings is directly across the street, out of the path of the liquor store “a block and a half away,” on what she calls a rough corner.
She’s hopeful but realistic. “Even if I have to settle for something for the next year, I have to find something,” she says. “I just can’t lose my voucher.”