Mark's Musings – April 2021 Edition

Mark Swartz, LCBH Executive Director

I can't believe a year has zipped past since LCBH's office closed to the public. The expression that parents often share, "the days are long, but the years fly by," acutely resonates with me as I try to work remotely and struggle to get much of anything done. I know I speak for many here at LCBH about how hard the year has been, especially for parents with small children. I keep reminding myself of how lucky we are at LCBH to be able to do our work remotely. Still, I am relieved that as legal aid providers, we qualify as Phase 1C Essential Workers and can now get in line to be vaccinated, a critical step to returning to the physical office.

April is Fair Housing month. While fair housing often conjures thoughts of eliminating discrimination in the context of purchasing a home— as well it should, given Chicago's history of redlining and deed restrictions— I am mindful of the racial disparities we see in eviction court daily, and how this also raises fair housing alarms. I often come back to this Matthew Desmond quote from his 2013 article, Evicting Children: "Policymakers interested in identifying and sanctioning discrimination … should focus not only on the front end of the housing process—the freedom to obtain housing anywhere—but also on the back end: the freedom to maintain housing anywhere."

In 1996 an LCBH eviction court study determined that approximately 72% of all tenants appearing in Chicago’s eviction courts were African American, 62% were women, and African American women accounted for nearly half of all tenants appearing in court. This continues to be an accurate reflection of the current demographics of LCBH’s clients. Many of these tenants have children (and having children significantly increases the odds of receiving an eviction judgment).

When LCBH started looking at eviction court data from 2010-17, we found Chicago landlords filed for evictions at substantially higher rates in majority Black Community Areas. The new data for 2018-19 show that this disparity is increasing: majority Black areas had eviction filing rates five times higher than majority White areas, while rates in majority Latinx areas were twice as high as those in majority White areas. While much of this may be attributed to the racial wealth gap— African American and Latinx households are less likely to own their home and more likely to be rent-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on housing— discrimination can be subtle and pernicious, especially in rental housing.

We cannot remedy the racial wealth gap overnight, but expanding the federal housing choice voucher (HCV) program so that everyone who qualifies for a voucher receives one, would go a long way. While the Biden administration proposes expanding the HCV program, it would still not be an entitlement program, as it needs to be. Universal housing vouchers would free up so much capacity, not just for renters and landlords, but for the court and homeless prevention systems. Just imagine how much potential could be realized if low-income renters weren’t always living on the brink of eviction and homelessness!

In Illinois (except Chicago and Cook County) it is legal to discriminate against housing choice voucher holders in the application process, even though such policies cloak discriminatory intent and have a disparate impact on households of color. Right now the Illinois Coalition for Fair Housing, of which LCBH is a part, is advocating for statewide source-of-income protection. HB2775, which recently passed out of committee in the Illinois House, amends the Illinois Human Rights Act to create housing protections against source of income discrimination, protecting voucher holders from denials due to polices, such as 3x the rent income requirements, that have no relevance to a voucher-holder’s ability to pay rent. Keep an eye out as we will be sending out updates and how to support so that this law gets passed by both chambers and signed into law this legislative session.

Even though source of income discrimination against voucher holders is already illegal in Chicago and Cook County, it is still quite common. Hence, education and outreach are critical. Earlier this year, LCBH, Housing Choice Partners, and CAHFA held a Facebook Live event where our staff discussed how renters can take step to protect themselves from source of income discrimination. A recording of the event is available here and has been viewed over 250 times.

Please join LCBH, the Illinois Coalition for Fair Housing, and the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA) in advocating for a more just and equitable city and state. You can learn more about CAFHA’s work and its Co-Director, Trish Fron here.

Happy Spring and Fair Housing month,

Mark Swartz
Executive Director