Housing voucher holders seek protection in suburban Cook County

Lawmakers hope to change an ordinance that would prevent discrimination.

February 5, 2013

Shanton Mathis’ home smells comforting. She’s cooking chicken noodle soup from scratch. Mathis rents a three-bedroom, colonial brick townhouse in Skokie with her three children.

Thirty percent of her income goes toward rent; the government pays the rest to the landlord. Mathis uses a housing choice voucher, commonly referred to as Section 8.

As a student and working mother, Mathis thought a voucher would be her ticket.

“When I first got my voucher, I was excited because I thought people that had vouchers would be living better. But when I was trying to find a unit in Evanston, all the nice places, they didn’t accept the voucher. They would just tell you no,” Mathis said. “Or you’d go through the application process; you don’t tell the landlord you have a voucher, then once they find out you have a voucher, you’re no longer eligible for that unit.”

Number of Housing Choice Voucher households

Cook County: 14,133

Chicago: 37, 423

Source: The Housing Authority of Cook County; Chicago Housing Authority

Mathis said she can’t count the number of times she’s been rejected. She was raised on Chicago’s West Side, where, no doubt, she could easily get affordable voucher housing. But living in the northern suburbs is important to her.

“I wanted my children to have access to better schools. I wanted to have access to resources and I went to school up here. I just thought it’d be convenient,” she said.

Therein lies the point of housing choice vouchers. Choice. The program was designed to give families mobility, chances to live in better communities with amenities like Mathis names.

In Chicago, people with housing vouchers are protected from discrimination. Not in suburban Cook County. Landlords can refuse to rent to tenants with vouchers -- just because. But housing activists and some politicians are trying to change that by changing an ordinance.

In the 1970s, under a class-action lawsuit, black Chicago families moved to the suburbs with their vouchers to remedy the segregation of public housing. Thousands went to affluent, white-majority suburbs.

The Gautreaux Program formally ended in 1998 after the target number of 7,100 families were placed. Meanwhile, Chicago has more than 37,000 voucher households - many in poor, segregated communities. Cook County administers close to 14,000 in the burbs. There’s only one voucher that’s administered by the county housing agency in wealthy Winnetka.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia is working on amending the human rights ordinance to include protection for housing voucher holders.

“In Cook County, we ought to have a more reasonable approach to how we decide who to rent to. People should not be discriminated against because they hold a Section 8 or a housing choice voucher,” Garcia said.

But the public image of voucher holders is negative. Sometimes it’s a proxy for race.

“I have received a variety of letters. Some of them are very hostile against people of color, against poor people. There is an old stereotype that the only people who have housing choice vouchers are criminals, are lazy people, people dependent on government or that they’re unruly or dirty,” Garcia said.

If the ordinance is changed, it wouldn’t make landlords automatically rent to voucher holders. Prospective renters would still have to meet requirements - such as credit and background checks. The change simply means renters couldn’t get the door slammed in their faces upon arrival.

But that’s not good enough for Dan Schermerhorn, who runs a property management company. He’s opposed to the ordinance change because he says the voucher program is saddled with too much bureaucracy.

Schermerhorn gave an example about the length of time it took to coordinate with an inspector - a requirement before an apartment is rented.

“So finally after six months of being without a payment from Section 8, we finally prevailed and got the inspector to come out and do the inspection. And that took us three more months to get all the back payments from Section 8. Once again, that’s a risk reward that the owner has to decide whether it’s worth it for them or not,” he said.

Schermerhorn said there should be a choice about participation.

And the federal housing department seemingly agrees. It says the housing voucher program is voluntary.