It shouldn’t be this hard to find a home in Chicago, said Brittany King, 30.
A single mother of a toddler, King is looking for subsidized housing near her family on the North Side. Having endured a stroke while in college in 2009 as a result of her sickle cell anemia, she does not want to wait years before she can find a home adjacent to her daughter’s day care and near her own mother and the doctors she relies on for care.
She’s looking for something bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, so her child can have a room, and she needs their home to be on the ground floor to accommodate her condition. But with a yearslong waitlist for Chicago Housing Authority-run affordable housing, King said it’s unlikely she’ll get the home she wants any time soon.
“Everything is wait-listed through the CHA,” said King, a housing and disability advocate. “The CHA is the middleman for all these affordable, accessible places ... (and) I have to wait another 10 years to get into a unit? That’s just unnecessarily painful. Ten years plus is too long to wait for anyone.”
For those familiar with the city’s affordable housing network, King’s tale is a familiar one. But recent efforts to amend the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), which governs affordable housing requirements for residential developers, could ease the process and have more Chicagoans like King in homes that fit their needs.
Proponents are hoping to get the word out about the Chicago Inclusive Housing Ordinance (CIHO), the reform legislation they hope will help with the looming eviction crisis prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and create more inclusive, affordable housing.
Tenets of the CIHO include:
To grow the stock of family-sized ARO residences — the majority are currently studios and one-bedrooms — the city would require 60% of newly built affordable housing to have at least two bedrooms, and 30% to have three bedrooms or more.
Lower rent to 20% to 50% of the area median income, compared to the current 60%, in line with median incomes for Black and Latino households in Chicago.
Place more affordable homes in high- and moderate-income neighborhoods with high rates of displacement.
End the option for developers to pay a fee in lieu of putting affordable housing in their buildings.
With those fees gone, create new funding for existing affordable housing programs by implementing a per-square-foot density fee for commercial developments and others not covered by the ARO.
Require ARO residences to be wheelchair adaptable or accessible.
The proposed ordinance comes after the city formed an Inclusionary Housing Task Force at the end of 2019 to examine public housing programs and suggest improvements to the ARO. It has the backing of the city’s Department of Housing, which oversees ARO initiatives.
“The Inclusionary Housing Task Force continues to be instrumental as we work toward a new ARO that is rooted in the goals of reducing segregation, serving lower-income residents and larger household sizes, and providing increased accessibility,” the department said in a statement.
The ARO requires developers who receive city funding, require a zoning change, or build on city-owned land to designate 10% to 20% of buildings with more than 10 apartments or condos for pricing below market rate — or pay fees instead.
Since it was passed in 2007, the ARO has produced more than 1,000 apartments in market-rate developments and generated over $124 million “in lieu of” fees. But there remains a need for at least 120,000 more homes across the city, according to the report.
Other concerns in the report include a rise in housing prices that has accelerated faster than household income — making large portions of Chicago still unaffordable for the city’s working class — and how the “in lieu of” fees can hinder inclusivity in neighborhoods where people would be otherwise priced out.
“Put together, these trends have exacerbated the racial and economic segregation that has plagued the city for over a century,” the report states.
The task force’s findings, released in September, adequately probed the quality of affordable housing created through the ARO, said John Joe Schlichtman, a sociology professor at DePaul University and co-author of the book “Gentrifier.”
“What marks Chicago is its lack of quality affordable housing in areas of opportunity,” Schlichtman said. “The response must be a balance between increasing opportunity in affordable areas and increasing affordability in areas of opportunity.”
Along with co-chairs Aldermen Walter Burnett Jr., 27th, Harry Osterman, 48th, and Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, the task force included developers, policy experts and representatives from Chicago-area housing organizations such as Heartland Alliance, The Resurrection Project, ONE Northside and Access Living.
Their findings formed the basis of the CIHO, which Sigcho-Lopez and six other aldermen introduced in November with the hopes of passing it in the first three months of 2021.
“Now (that) we made an assessment, it’s time to pass legislation,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “At this point, we’re in an emergency.”
Housing advocates have issued dire warnings about the tidal wave of evictions expected when government moratoriums issued amid the pandemic are ultimately lifted.
Intended to keep people in their homes to slow the spread of COVID-19, state and federal moratoriums do not erase rent debt, meaning those who could not afford rent due to job loss or other pandemic-related financial issues could be still be evicted if they don’t come up with the money.
“Many people are experiencing housing insecurity for the first time in their life, escalating challenges faced by those who were already housing insecure,” said Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, who co-sponsored the CIHO. “Even before COVID-19, we were facing an accessible and affordable housing crisis, which has now been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Legislators must address the pending crisis before it comes to a head, taking action such as requiring landlords to have just cause for evictions or else provide money for relocation, Sigcho-Lopez said.
“We need to make sure that we pass a number of (laws) that we have seen in other cities,” he said. “Just cause is one of them; ARO reform is another that we’re working on to make sure that developers aren’t coming in and eroding the social fabric of our communities.”
Another tool is the anti-deconversion ordinance, legislation that Sigcho-Lopez backed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot that was passed last week. The ordinance is designed to make it harder for developers to buybuildings with multiple apartments and convert them into expensive single-family homes.
Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, doesn’t think the proposed CIHO is a silver bullet for affordable housing; but, he said, it’s a necessary change.
“We have to do something, and our ordinance will blunt some of the crisis,” Washington said. “Homelessness, housing insecurity and the threat of eviction has made us so vulnerable to shocks to our society that COVID-19, a year into its growth, is threatening us with apocalyptic outcomes.”
Nonpartisan think tank Aspen Institute estimated in August that at least 31% and up to half of Illinois households are at risk of eviction, representing up to 1.7 million people in 762,000 households. A more conservative estimate from Stout, a global advisory firm, still sees up to 532,000 renter households at risk.
“We’ve no systems in place to contend with even half of the predicted number of evictions hitting this city if they happen,” Washington said.
Advocates are showcasing the real-life situations Illinois renters are facing through a new website, Renter Stories.
Funded by the Lift the Ban Coalition, Metropolitan Tenants Organization and Autonomous Tenants Union, the site solicits testimonies in an attempt to make the lives of constituents a little harder to ignore during this crisis, said Morley Musick, who conducted interviews with the first cohort of renters on the website.
“Just hearing in plain speech interviews ... about the central issues in their lives can help put in perspective the enormity of the crisis,” he said.
The stories include a Starbucks employee who got a 30-day notice to vacate; a grandmother who has to choose between paying rent and getting her medication; and a student loan-burdened architect who got hit with a 12% increase in rent last year.
“When you take away somebody’s home, you not only directly endanger their physical health through stress ... but (it) literally just jeopardizes their sense of stability as a person,” Musick said. “(They feel) like, ‘Can I count on anything?’ Just hearing from the interviews: No. It’s a tragic conclusion.”
The Chicago Housing Initiative will host a virtual town hall on the eviction crisis at 1 p.m. Saturday. During the event, individuals will learn what they can do to protect themselves, and what the city can do to protect us all.