Alicia Welch* aspires to get back to school to earn a business degree, specializing in nonprofit administration. After that she wants to start her own nonprofit, helping young returning citizens reintegrate in ways that keep them out of the criminal justice system. There’s plenty of that work needed on the south side of Chicago, where Welch has lived since 2005. But first she needs a new apartment.
Living in recovery after surviving a sexual assault, Welch and her eldest daughter still live in the same apartment where the assault occurred. After an accident five years ago, her middle daughter lives permanently in a children’s hospice. Her youngest daughter lives with her ex-husband in another part of Chicago.
Since April 2015, Welch has been one of 47,000 participants in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which allowed her to move into her current apartment in Chicago’s historic South Shore neighborhood.
As a Chicago Housing Authority Section 8 participant, Welch has access to a voucher of unusual flexibility. Rather than the usual fair market rent rule, which based voucher payments on one federally calculated price across an entire metropolitan area, the Chicago Housing Authority has the flexibility to more closely match its voucher payments with current market rents in census tracts with positive economic indicators. It’s a policy designed to help de-concentrate voucher holders, who otherwise typically remain concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods.
As Next City reported previously, starting this year 24 local public housing authorities are now required (and the rest have the option) to-re-shape their voucher programs to have similar flexibility. No Section 8 participant is required to move into an area with fewer voucher holders or low poverty, but all voucher holders must be informed about the opportunity to do so. Chicago’s program, which has been operating since 2011, can provide some early lessons to other public housing authorities. Not all of them are positive.
Since surviving a sexual assault in her current apartment, Welch has wanted to move, and also to find a neighborhood that would be safer, with access to better schools and fresh food. Since November 2017, she has been out to see eight different apartments and counting. But each time, even when she has received a warm response from the landlord, broker or other representative, upon revealing she is a Section 8 participant, the conversation turns ice cold. It’s been eight tough pills to swallow.
“I’m someone who loves to talk, who loves to socialize, but I’ve lost some of that as of late,” Welch says. “I’m deflated.”
She’s hardly alone in that regard. It happens to many voucher holders. The Chicago Housing Authority has one of the country’s most robust mobility programs. Only Dallas and Baltimore have programs on a similar scale and depth. Yet in Chicago, as in many cities, voucher holders run up against discrimination from landlords who don’t want to accept vouchers.
“Our clients are facing a lot of discrimination,” says Andrea Juracek, executive director at Housing Choice Partners, the nonprofit contracted by the Chicago housing authority to run the mobility counseling program. “Every single day they’re hearing from landlords that they don’t take the voucher…A lot of landlords are now also starting to ask for very high application fees or non-refundable move-in fees in lieu of a security deposit, skirting the landlord-tenant laws.”
Between a thousand to 1,400 Section 8 participants a year express an interest for more information about the mobility program, according to Housing Choice Partners. About half of those move forward into one-on-one mobility counseling. Of those that do, two out of five end up staying in a high-poverty area. Sometimes they choose to stay where they are closer to existing family and friend support networks. Sometimes they stay because they’ve faced discrimination. Sometimes both.
Discriminating against voucher holders, known as “source of income” discrimination, is illegal in certain states and localities around the United States, including Cook County, which includes Chicago. “Unfortunately the city does not give a lot of resources to enforcement of the ordinance,” Juracek notes.
The Chicago Commission on Human Relations is the city agency charged with enforcing the local source of income discrimination law, just one of the several anti-discrimination ordinances it enforces. On an annual basis, it’s not unusual for the commission to see source of income discrimination complaints be among the top three most filed complaint categories alongside race and disability. Since 2010, as few as 22 and as many as 79 source of income discrimination complaints have been filed annually at the commission.
Housing Choice Partners’ mobility counselors are trained to know what information is necessary to gather from clients in order to brief legal aid partners, like those at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Legal Assistance Foundation. They also hold regular workshops where clients can come to learn more about their rights and meet one-on-one with pro bono lawyers who can help file claims and maybe even take landlords to court. Welch plans to attend the next such workshop, in early March. But the legal partners are often already at or beyond capacity—prompting the nonprofit to consider hiring its own in-house legal team.
“Our legal partners don’t have the capacity to take on all the complaints we can generate,” says Juracek. “It’s gotten to the point where we recognize we really need to help fill the gap.”
In the meantime, the Chicago Housing Authority and Housing Choice Partners work on a number of other fronts to “set the stage” to connect clients with landlords who are already aware of and open to Section 8 participants. The authority holds outreach sessions, workshops, and an annual conference for current and potential Section 8 landlords. Last summer, the housing authority began offering landlords a pro-rated “bonus” of up to one month’s rent to compensate for the additional time it takes to lease a unit to a voucher holder, which requires one or more inspections of the unit by the housing authority before the participant moves in. Housing Choice Partners formerly raised money from outside grant sources to make the pro-rated payments to landlords.
“For [the housing authority] to take on that as an incentive is a huge step,” Juracek says.
Still, most landlords’ first time hearing about the Section 8 program is from prospective tenants, according to Kathryn Ludwig, chief housing choice voucher at the authority. To be the face of the housing authority can feel like a tremendous burden, Welch adds. Ludwig’s team has plans for this year to work on making that burden easier to carry, with more preparation for Section 8 participants.
While there’s still plenty of barriers, there’s also light at the end of the tunnel. As of September 2017, the authority was administering about 1,800 vouchers in low-poverty, low-subsidized housing census tracts. An average of 291 voucher holders a year have moved into those census tracts since the authority’s voucher program started offering the flexibility to do so in 2011. The record was the 2014 fiscal year, when 638 voucher holders moved into those areas.
One of them was Dilynn Lucas. Around five years ago, she could no longer feel at ease living with her three daughters amid the violence around them on the west side of Chicago. It took her about two years, and she readily admits nearly giving up multiple times, but three years ago she finally landed a home to rent in an area on the north side of Chicago with a low poverty rate, a low rate of current rent-subsidized housing, and as Lucas says, “fresh fruit, fresh air.”
“It was hard at first. A lot of apartments I went to, they didn’t know what I was talking about [when I brought up my voucher],” says Lucas, who has had a steady job since graduating high school, and currently manages an auto parts store in her old neighborhood.
It was hard after moving in, too. She’d never cut grass before, or handled her own water and electric bills. Today, with the experience of taking care of a home she’s rented for three years, she feels more than ready to enter a first-time homeowner program. But first, she’s looking forward to her oldest daughter, a math and science whiz, graduating from high school later this year.
“I could go outside and breathe and know wherever my girls are they’re going to be okay, in the front yard or in the back,” says Lucas. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially to know where I came from. I didn’t have the opportunity as a kid to go outside and play or go to a school that had these extra opportunities and help.”
*Name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.