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How long would you wait for safe, decent, affordable shelter? It's a question that's been on my mind a lot recently, as my partner and I begin the hunt for a new apartment. While we are lucky enough to know that we can stay in our current unit on a month-to-month basis if we cannot find something that meets our needs before our current lease is up, the act of finding a new apartment has been incredibly stressful. Each unit seems to disappear off the market within moments, often renting at rates well beyond what these same units likely cost just a few years ago. Even with the many advantages we have in looking for a new unit, the act of finding a new home has been deeply frustrating experience, a reminder of just how broken our housing market has become.
Now imagine waiting 30 years for a housing unit. That's what happened to 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, who just received a letter from the Chicago Housing Authority that she finally reached the top of the organization's Section 8 waitlist, entitling her to subsidized rent in a market-rate apartment. When Taylor first applied for the waitlist in 1993, she was a single mom, raising three children in a one-bedroom apartment. In the decades since, she's become a community leader, supporter of affordable housing, fighter for public education, and now an alderwoman. All the while, she's had to make due with market-rate housing, scraping by on a monthly basis until she reached office and secured a more consistent salary.
Taylor recently posted the letter she received on social media, highlighting just how broken our housing system has become. While other countries routinely use public and social housing to meet the housing needs of all of its residents, public housing in the United States has been treated only as a measure of last resort for the most disadvantaged. Moreover, the city of Chicago demolished nearly 17,000 units of public housing through the Plan for Transformation, spending more than $3 billion while rehousing less than 8 percent of impacted households in the mixed-income communities that the CHA promised would improve residents' lives. Now, CHA and other public housing authorities are far more likely to lean on vouchers, which subsidize landlord profits, in ways that often leads to further racial segregation and a lack of meaningful opportunities for those who receive these benefits.
Taylor first heard from the CHA in the 2000s, when it first offered her a unit. But the lease terms would have required Taylor to kick out her teenage son, who had just graduated high school. These twisted incentives, which require eligible renters to choose between family and shelter, are not choices that any family should have to face. Yet that's just how the subsidized housing system works in the United States -- even in the process of serving low-income families, we punish them further.
Even after forcing Taylor to wait three decades for housing, the CHA could not show any of the patience that it made her endure. The letter that she shared indicated that the alderwoman had just one week to decide if she'd take the unit, a turnaround time that no tenant could reasonably expect to meet.
Taken together, this story has many lessons for the housing justice movement we're hoping to build. Most fundamentally, it shows just how little we take the need for safe, healthy, and affordable housing seriously. Why does it take someone 30 years to get government support to find somewhere to live? Why did we destroy 17,000 units of guaranteed low-cost housing, then spend billions to only replace a fraction of what was taken away? These are not easy questions to face, and demonstrate just how far we have to go to achieve true housing justice in this city. While Jeanette's story caught public awareness because she's in office, we know that we must do this work for all those who cannot draw this kind of attention towards their struggle to find a home in Chicago.