Thursday, January 10, 2019
This past Tuesday, Reuben and I attended “A People’s Forum on Public Housing and Housing Insecurity,” featuring Chicago mayoral candidates running in the upcoming February 2019 election.
Unlike other mayoral forums this election season, this one focused on hearing the lived experiences of Chicago citizens. The basic set up was around five different conversation circles. Each group of people stayed together while the six mayoral candidates took turns sitting in on the circles, moving every fifteen minutes or so.
This event was hosted by the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), which is, in fact, the only institution the United States to focus on the history of the struggles and movements for public housing. As such, NPHM also advocates for improving access to public and affordable housing today.
And it’s not just an institutional goal for the museum. Improving public housing is the passionate work and livelihood of the people who embody this organization.
NPHM seeks solutions to problems of housing insecurity and creating affordable housing, first and foremost by amplifying the stories of the people who have been in the midst of these very struggles.
And as a testimony to this, it was the people’s voices at the forefront of this forum, to acknowledge both the stories they’ve lived and the solutions they’d like to see from their experience.
Neighbors shared about the civic neglect of opportunities for public and affordable housing, often due to aldermanic prerogative which allows alderman to control zoning.
People also shared about how racism, classism, and ageism have affected their communities, with zoning and the lowering of property values in predominantly black neighborhoods in particular.
And people shared about the difficulty with landlords, such the lack of rent control, and the unjust power that many landlords and developers have over the housing market in a given community area.
People shared about neighbors being evicted within their community and being priced out of their homes due to drastic rent increases.
The truth is, roughly 50% of Chicagoans are rent burdened, meaning 30% or more of their income goes toward housing expenses. So, in order to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Illinois, a person would need to make $20.87 per hour working a 40-hour job, or conversely, a person working a minimum wage job would have to work 101 hours per week.
And while there are 135,000 people in public housing in Chicago, there are 113,000 more people on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waiting list.
Sometimes numbers like these don’t speak directly enough into the situation, but when you see them in the context of the stories and struggles of real people, it’s a reminder that behind each of those numbers there are that many more stories. Affordable housing is a crisis.
And these stories barely begin to touch on the thousands more Chicagoans experiencing homelessness.
If we truly believe in the sanctity of human life, then our convictions must include the essential need of shelter. Housing justice is something we should have as an absolute priority for all people.
And if you or I ever struggle to see this need for ourselves, my experience on Tuesday shows that we likely don’t have to look any farther than the story of one of our neighbors.