Veteran fair housing advocate Christine Klepper recently told me, “You can’t undo segregation and Jim Crow in a short period of time.”
We were talking about segregation in Chicago’s public housing, something that the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have been trying to undo for the past four decades.
The face of Chicago public housing has changed since the late 1960s. All of the city’s high-rise buildings have been knocked down and most “public housing” families today live in private rental units with the help of a federal rent subsidy called a Housing Choice Voucher.
A goal of the voucher program is to spread the federal subsidies throughout “opportunity areas,” or communities with more jobs, high-performing schools and, generally, and that are generally less racially segregated, throughout the city and nearby suburbs. But that isn’t happening.
The Chicago Reporter found that more than 97 percent of the voucher spending remains in Chicago. We mapped out where those rent dollars were spent between 2006 and 2011 and found that few trickled into the so-called "opportunity areas." Most went to help house people in highly-segregated parts of the city’s South and West Sides where schools are struggling and jobs are hard to come by.
Only $1 out of every $10 in rent subsidies were spent in places on the Chicago Housing Authority’s list of “opportunity areas.” Those areas are the census tracts outlined in blue below. Landlords collected $3.5 million or more in rents from the CHA in the tracts shaded in red. Click through for details on the spending:
Klepper is the executive director of Housing Choice Partners, a nonprofit that contracts with the CHA to guide families out of high-poverty neighborhoods. She has been working in the public housing arena since the 1970s, when she started scouting out suburban apartments for public housing families who wanted to move out of the city.
Many were moving to the suburbs with the help of rent vouchers, which was mandated under a consent decree approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. In the lawsuit, Hills v. Gautreaux, the high court affirmed that public housing had been deliberately built along racial lines in Chicago, hemming black families into hyper-segregated communities with high unemployment, overcrowded schools and poverty.
Under the decree, HUD funded the vouchers to try and remedy that practice--which violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by funding the rent vouchers. The program, formerly known as Section 8, provided rent subsidies and counseling for thousands of families in the hope that, with a little extra support, they could move to better-off communities.
Klepper finds it discouraging that the racial and economic makeup of the communities where apartments are subsidized today mirrors the late 1960s.
“If we’re not changing housing patterns,” she says, “we’re not doing enough.”
Laura Feldman, a spokeswoman with HUD’s Chicago-area office says that it’s up to housing authorities to try and break up the segregation of subsidized families by “encouraging” voucher holders to look in opportunity areas. Ultimately, Feldman wrote in an email, “People choose where they want to live. Neither we, [or] local housing authorities, can tell voucher holders where to live. Steering is illegal.”
Klepper is the first to acknowledge how hard it is to get poor families to leave the distressed neighborhoods where most voucher-holders live today. And race still has a lot to do with it.
Forty years ago, the hardest part was finding landlords outside of the city’s Black Belt who were willing to accept subsidized families, 90 percent of whom were black. Today, she says, the biggest barrier is helping voucher-holders overcome their “reluctance” to move to new, unfamiliar communities. Their fears, she points out, are rooted in the city’s “legacy” of housing discrimination.
But Klepper says that she’s not making any excuses. “Housing officials have an affirmative duty to spend federal money in a way that breaks up segregation,” she says.
After five decades, that’s yet to happen.