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Kadner: Poor want fair shot at apartments

Shirley JohnsProgram Director Metropolitan Tenants Organizatispeaks during town hall meeting denounce discriminatiHousing Choice Voucher programs Progress Center Blue IslIllinois Thursday

Shirley Johnson, Program Director Metropolitan Tenants Organization, speaks during a town hall meeting to denounce discrimination in Housing Choice Voucher programs at the Progress Center in Blue Island, Illinois, Thursday, January 24, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 26, 2013 6:37AM



People with a Section 8 voucher want the right to live anywhere in Cook County.

During a town hall meeting held by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, landlords were accused of discriminating against apartment tenants who were issued Housing Choice Vouchers, the new name for what used to be the federal rent-subsidy program called Section 8.

The solution may be an amendment to the Cook County human rights ordinance, which now protects people from discrimination based on income (specifically child support and Social Security) but does not include protections for those who hold Housing Choice Vouchers.

There are landlords who refuse to even let voucher holders fill out an application, according to Shirley Johnson, program director for MTO, and several voucher holders who spoke at the meeting in Blue Island.

The result is that people with vouchers are herded together into suburbs and Chicago communities that have high crime rates, poor schools, high unemployment and few public services.

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago) said that when the Chicago public housing projects closed, most of those residents were directed to the south suburbs.

Commissioner Jesus Garcia (D-Chicago), a sponsor of the amendment, told the audience of about 100 that “we need to make it illegal in suburban Cook County to discriminate simply because people rely on a choice voucher for housing. This really has to do with human rights and human dignity.”

My guess is that when many middle-class suburban homeowners hear the words “Section 8” and “voucher” a certain stereotype comes to mind.

Black. Hispanic. Poor.

They probably don’t think about people such as Barry Remo, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967-68, who described his struggle with homelessness and finding an apartment while using a voucher. Remo, by the way, is white.

And what about disabled people, who have a difficult time finding employment and are often forced to accept low-income jobs?

Several disabled people — leaning heavily on walkers, strapped to oxygen tanks and, in one case, a person who was deaf — spoke at the meeting.

If your sister, brother, mother or father were disabled and qualified for a housing voucher, wouldn’t you want them to at least have an opportunity to live in a suburban community near you?

If you answer “yes” on veterans and the disabled, the issue of discrimination based on race certainly seems to jump out. It did for me.

And I was forced to confront another issue that made me uncomfortable — economic discrimination.

Most people live in the best suburb they can afford to live in.

They buy their homes because the schools are good, the communities are safe, there may be shopping nearby or recreational activities offered for the family. It’s a big financial investment, and some folks are willing to sacrifice a lot to live in such places.

Should they be forced to share their neighborhoods with people who have lower incomes? It’s a nasty question to ask and unfortunately really wasn’t addressed during the town hall meeting.

When I posed it directly to Johnson and John Bartlett, executive director of MTO, they responded with two answers.

First, if you don’t disperse the low-income population throughout Cook County, you create massive problems for poorer suburbs that are already struggling and trying to pull themselves up.

Second, if people can pay their rent through a voucher, why shouldn’t they be allowed to live anywhere they want?

Is it right to condemn them to towns where apartments are poorly maintained, public schools are struggling and the streets are not safe?

I believe the answer is “no,” but I don’t believe for a moment that will satisfy most people who become squeamish at the mention of subsidized housing vouchers.

For people in Orland Park, Oak Lawn or places in between who whine about being inundated by Housing Choice Voucher holders, I would say the reality is that most people, especially poor people, are in no hurry to go to a strange place where they know no one.

But poor people do need jobs if they’re not going to be poor any longer, and putting them all together in towns such as Harvey, Robbins and Chicago Heights isn’t going to make anything better.

However, the town hall meeting failed in a very real way to address some critical issues and raised a big question in my mind.

Chicago has an ordinance that forbids discrimination against tenants who have vouchers. But many of the people who spoke at the meeting live in Chicago and spoke of the discrimination they experienced.

Johnson told me they at least now have the opportunity to use the law against those landlords who discriminate.

Fine. But it didn’t stop the landlords from refusing to let the voucher holders even fill out an application.

Lawsuits, it seems to me, don’t help much when you’re homeless and spending days and weeks traveling to find an apartment that someone will let you live in.

Nearly 40 percent of voucher recipients are employed, and more than 30 percent are senior citizens or persons with disabilities, according to information distributed by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. Many of the homeless in this country are veterans.

I came to the Blue Island meeting willing to hear arguments about how to make things better. The influx of Section 8 residents in the south suburbs has been extraordinary over the past decade.

I didn’t hear anything said about the need for the north and west suburbs to bear their share of the burden.

In theory, the Cook County amendment might do that. But in practice, I have real doubts.



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