December 17, 2015

While the great majority of public housing residents in Chicago are African-American, Latino leaders are looking to public and subsidized housing to alleviate displacement and gentrification pressures in neighborhoods with a strong Latino presence, like Pilsen and Logan Square.

With increasing attention on the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), there are more calls for subsidized housing options for Latinos and even threats of legal action should they be ignored.

The Pilsen Alliance community organization recently crafted a housing affordability plan for the neighborhood, with the help of urban development and planning professors at DePaul University and the University of Illinois Chicago. Much of the proposal focuses on lobbying and partnering with the CHA.

“It’s a big shock for families in a neighborhood that’s been low-income for so long,” said Byron Sigcho, a member of the community activist group Pilsen Alliance and former aldermanic candidate for the 25th Ward, which includes Pilsen. The group hopes that more CHA housing will ensure affordable options remain for Latinos in their long-standing community.

Latinos and Hispanics accounted for almost 30 percent of Chicago’s population in 2014, according to the American Community Survey. Latinos account for almost a quarter of Chicagoans who are income-eligible for CHA’s public housing or Housing Choice Voucher Program, based on an analysis by the Latino Policy Forum.

There is often stigma around public housing among Latinos, however, according to Sigcho. At a recent housing committee meeting at the Pilsen Alliance headquarters, a member expressed concern over the idea of bringing housing projects into the neighborhood.

Sigcho pointed out that the CHA already has a presence in Pilsen, including the Casa Maravilla, a 73-unit apartment complex for seniors developed by the Pilsen-based organization Resurrection Project.

That development is not associated with the stereotypes of crime and violence that are often associated with public housing, however.

“It’s important to stop pathologizing public housing,” Sigcho said.

Stigma is often used as an explanation for Latinos’ low participation rates in public housing. But surveys have suggested that a lack of knowledge about the CHA is more to blame, according to Savannah Clement, the housing manager at the Latino Policy Forum. “It’s not that they don’t want to live in public housing, but that they don’t know” about the services, she said. “It speaks to CHA’s poor outreach strategy.”

In 1996 CHA settled a class-action lawsuit, filed by the non-profit organization Latinos United, alleging unequal access for Latinos to public housing services. The resulting federal consent decree required the CHA to increase its Latino tenancy significantly, although it did not set quotas and the decree expired in 2005.

Latino participation rates in CHA plateaued or declined after the consent decree expired, Clement said. Although Latinos made up 25 percent of Chicagoans eligible for public housing based on their income in 2014, they made up only 10 percent of the population living in such units, according to the Latino Policy Forum’s analysis. Similarly, Latinos accounted for only 9 percent of CHA’s voucher program despite the fact that they made up 23 percent of the total eligible population. Vouchers allow people to live in private apartments and pay 30 percent of their income toward rent; the government pays the rest of the amount.

“Latinos are participating at less than half the rate they should be based on income,” Clement said. “Without the consent decree there is no accountability.”

Today, there are whispers of yet another potential lawsuit. The Pilsen Alliance has mentioned legal action as a possibility if the CHA isn’t responsive to their housing proposal.

And the Pilsen Alliance isn’t the only group to mention legal action. The CHA dropped its long-standing development contract with Hispanic Housing Development Corporation (HHDC) in August. CHA contracted HHDC as a private property development manager of affordable housing for 26 years.

“We were flabbergasted,” said Hipolito (Paul) Roldan, the company’s president and chief executive officer. He called it a “huge mistake on the part of the city and the CHA.”

As the only Latino property manager contracted with the CHA, the company was the main entry point for Latinos into public housing, Clement said. “CHA is lacking that trust in the Latino community. When you take away the contracts with Latino vendors, that causes a gap and a barrier.”

Roldan has little faith in the leadership at CHA and city hall.

“We need something that will transcend the authority of these people. That’s why we need a legal mandate to come down on this institution,” Roldan said. “Latinos aren’t participating – not as developers, not in their neighborhoods … So for the next 50 years, we will be out in the cold.”

Sigcho and others say the Hispanic housing corporation got complacent once they “got a piece of the pie” through their CHA contract. But, “if they are on the right side of things, we can do something to fight the discrimination,” he said in reference to possible collaboration.

Matthew Aguilar, senior manager of communications and marketing at the CHA, said that the termination of HHDC’s contract will not affect Latinos’ access to CHA services.

In October, the CHA released a request for business proposals (or an RFP) “seeking community-based organizations to provide outreach and information services to the Latino community, as well as other immigrant and non-English speaking populations,” Aguilar added.

CHA was supposed to send this RFP to the Latino Policy Forum for review before its release, but they didn’t, Clement said. The agency wasn’t legally required to share, but there was no explanation or warning, and “it really erodes trust,” she said.

Yahaira Battiata works at Erie Neighborhood House, a community organization that serves primarily low-income Latinos. She is the outreach coordinator for Buen HOGAR, an existing CHA outreach initiative. The Erie Neighborhood House is contracted with the CHA to provide housing workshops, legal assistance and affordable housing opportunities to members of the Latino community.

Battiata sees progress. For a long time, many Hispanics had no access to CHA programs since the agency didn’t provide information in Spanish, she said. Now there are translations and language services available.

But the CHA has been limiting Erie Neighborhood House’s contract to three-month extensions for the last year, and it is hard to operate on a short-term scale like that, according to Clement.

While Clement sees disinvestment by the CHA, she also acknowledged progress. In recent months, the Latino Policy Forum has had unprecedented access to the administration through monthly and private meetings with the CEO, there are Latinos in leadership positions at the agency and CHA created the Office of Diversity.

It’s a paradox, she said. “That’s what’s so strange about all of this.”

The Pilsen Alliance sees the CHA as a means to curb displacement, and Sigcho thinks a partnership with the agency would be mutually beneficial. It could revamp CHA’s image among Latinos and “change the legacy of corruption,” he noted. “We can be an ally.”

With mounting pressure and scrutiny on city hall in the wake of unrest over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the last thing Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants is negative press, Clement said. “If there is any moment to see change, this is the one.”