Housing activists welcome New York Times coverage, want more gender balance

Housing activists welcome New York Times coverage, want more gender balance
Sabrina Morey poses for a portrait in the living room of her reclaimed home in Belmont Cragin. Photo by Tyler Stabile.

In a city still suffering from a housing crisis that ripped through economically disadvantaged black and Latino communities, an article that throws a national spotlight on Chicago activists’ fight to claim empty and dilapidated houses is a welcome acknowledgement of their struggle.

In a May 29 article titled “The Death and Life of Chicago,” The New York Times Magazine looked at the activism that has sprung up to tackle the glut of vacant and foreclosed buildings in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods.

The story focused on the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group fighting evictions and foreclosures that modeled its activism on South Africa’s Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign’s tactic of building homes on unused land.

The main character in the story is the group’s charismatic front man, Willie Fleming, who goes by J.R., and grew up in Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago’s iconic but now torn down public housing projects.

The Anti-Eviction Campaign said it appreciated the article’s focus on the big picture of the city’s housing woes.

“The national spotlight on Chicago has been really amazing,” said Toussaint Losier another of the campaign’s founders. “I think the thing that has been most appreciated is that The New York Times Magazine cover story didn’t just highlight our work but put it squarely in the context of our unequal housing market. It tapped into what has been a long-running theme in the history of the city in terms of the tension between the Loop and the neighborhoods.”

But what The New York Times article didn’t shine a lens on is the array of groups making up Chicago’s housing movement, or the gender diversity among its leaders, say some long-time housing activists.

“When I see a story like the one in The New York Times, I say it’s great coverage, but where are the voices of the women?” asked Holly Krig , who joined the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign shortly after it started and is now an activist with the Chicago-based Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction.

Krig argued that it’s not only a matter of interviewing women that are affected by foreclosures and evictions. Instead, “what we need to see a lot more of and to hear a lot more from and about are women working as leaders,” Krig said.

CUAFE is one of several groups, along with independent activists, that work on housing issues in the city. Most recently, CUAFE, along with the Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Albany Park Autonomous Center, took reporters on a citywide tour of vacant and foreclosed homes. 

Daveon Biggs waits as 90 year old Emma Harris braces herself to exit the bus at one of the many stops along the tour. Photo by Tyler Stabile.

Sabrina Morey is one woman who Krig says has been both a victim and a leader. She has faced poverty and homelessness, and has been an organizer with CUAFE for two and a half years. Morey is now living in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood in a foreclosed home taken over by CUAFE in a 2011 “home reclamation.

The tactic, used in several other cases with varying levels of success around the city, has activists take over a home that has been foreclosed on and is falling into disrepair, fix it up, and move in a family that needs housing.

“We pay the bills, we keep up the properties and make repairs on them,” said Morey, who prior to moving into the vacant building found that when her financial luck took a turn for the worse, she and her two children would be forced to leave their rental apartments and live in parks and homeless shelters.

She agrees that media coverage should focus on the women leading the housing movements. “It is not a one-person movement,” she said. “It’s a many groups movement.”

But that’s not where activist Krig’s hopes for a broader kind of coverage end. She would also like to see a focus on the dramatic home occupations coupled with stories on the day-to-day work it takes to build a movement.

“The day-to-day pieces of that struggle are knocking on doors, having meetings with folks who are themselves facing sometimes imminent eviction,” she said. Stories “about how we attack this as a much larger social and economic rights issue.”

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