One of the the first impressions that visitors and tourists often remark about Chicago is its racial segregation, an insight into a reality that has been sustained, and supported over many decades, despite some pockets of relief. Reluctantly acknowledged by some, the reality has had an effect on the social fabric of the city and has resulted in limiting the economic and employment opportunities for African Americans.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Urban League presented a report, together with a panel of housing experts and community leaders, to explore the many facets of segregated housing. Titled “The Impact of Segregation on Residence, Housing and Transportation in Chicago”, the League’s Director of Research and Evaluation, Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, noted its unique focus on housing and transportation issues.
Looking at the effect on Chicago’s most economically disadvantaged African American communities in Chicago, the League’s CEO, Shari Runner, noted, in her welcoming address, “This is just the beginning of the work that we have to do, [and] our need to identify what are the next steps, and how we then begin to address the problem.”
Chicago’s long standing segregation in housing has, according to Bechteler, impacted the city since The Great Migration, and has limited access to “both goods and services, and especially employment,” for those affected. Especially significant, she noted, is that “70 percent of African Americans live in an area of concentrated poverty.”
Of those areas,“19 meet the criteria for a racially concentrated area of poverty where over 40 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level. And, “there has been little change over the past several decades,” she added.
Moderated by radio station WVON chief of staff, Dr. Eugenia Orr, the presentation revolved around several themes, from fair and affordable housing to the voices of the community and the intersection of housing and the criminal justice system. Orr herself, has been interested in issues of housing in Chicago for a considerable time. She holds a doctorate is in Ethical Leadership from Olivet Nazarene University.
With the economy is still recovering, with moderate success, from the Great Recession, Black Chicagoans have a higher rate of unemployment, 18.5 percent in 2015, than their white counterparts. Bechteler notes that a significant problem resulting from housing segregation is transportation to areas where jobs are most prevalent. As she and her researchers discovered, “Resources and opportunities are residentially determined, meaning where you live determines the school you attend, your job prospects and you ability to learn a living close to home.”
Patricia Fron, Executive Director of Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, said, that there are two key questions to ask when trying to increase diverse and resilient communities: “Who has access?” and “Who has benefits?.” Historically these key questions have been compromised for Chicago’s black communities, through the practice of redlining by unscrupulous real estate agents, which have resulted in”urban deserts,” bereft of opportunities for personal development.
Continuing in that vein was Kevin Jackson, Executive Director of Chicago Rehab Network, who said that “systemic discrimination has led to disinvestment in communities,” and that the chance to “grow wealth,” has not been seen, and adds that “the role of disinvestment,” has been a blow to these segregated communities.
He also noted that legislative efforts such as the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947, which led to a restoration of the city’s core and residential districts, also had at its central mission, the removal of blacks from the city neighborhoods, and into high rise buildings. As the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes, “While whites were among those uprooted in Hyde Park and on the North and West Sides, urban renewal in this context too often meant, as contemporaries noted, “Negro removal.” Between 1948 and 1963 alone, some 50,000 families (averaging 3.3 members) and 18,000 individuals were displaced.”
Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois, noted the acute shortage of affordable housing in the state, 300,000 to be exact, and that of the public housing waiting lists; three quarters of which is closed. Adding to these problems is the reluctance of some landlords to rent to those holding vouchers for subsidized housing.
Taking into account the lack of a state budget and the stalemate between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratically controlled state assembly, the outlook for improvement looks grim, says Palmer. There is a “need for unity,” for all concerned to prevent a pushback in this area, he emphasized.
Examining the problem on a micro level was Jawanza Malone, Executive Director, of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, who said that there is an acute need for quality housing and that Chicago Housing Authority needs to rehab and rebuild certain units. He also noted that often, due to regulations, problems and adjudications, “residents often become victims.”
In addition, he feels, like many public housing advocates that the Chicago CIty Council should pass the “Keeping the Promise” bill that would allow them to have oversight over the CHA, and “would require the agency to submit quarterly reports on its progress and plans for building public housing, the amount of vacant and offline public housing, utilization of housing vouchers, housing inspections, and unspent revenue.” according to CBS Chicago.
It might also, according to Margaret Wooten, of the League, help to alleviate the long waiting lists, that plague so many that are looking for affordable housing. There are others who are less sanguine about this proposal and feel that considering Chicago’s long struggle with public housing, it might need less oversight than more. For example, in the past there was an aldermanic prerogative that gave them the right to choose the sites. BPI Chicago notes that previously “CHA agreed to submit twice as many sites as necessary, so that aldermen had readily available alternatives to placing public housing in predominantly white wards. Effectively, the City Council held veto power over CHA’s real estate purchases.”
One area ripe for improvement, according to Kate Walz of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, are stipulations that allow for any applicant who has ever been arrested, convicted or not,even for acts of civil disobedience, to be denied a slot in Chicago public housing.
Residential segregation in Chicago, is regrettably, not new, and has deep roots in intentional choices over time, from the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson that issued the doctrine of “Separate but Equal,” to the racially restrictive covenants of the 1920’s through the 1950s to the Blockbusting of the 1960s and 70s, continuing on to the Predatory Lending and Gentrification of the 2000s. But, if a new age has to be turned, as shown in the League’s’ report then there has to be a new paradigm, as the panelists showed. These new approaches must include all involved, says Bechteler, but mostly she recommends a “non-appointed, representative citizen fair housing/neighborhoods accountability council composed of community member, housing and neighborhood activities.”