Lekisha Nowling is a mother of three who has lived in an apartment in West Garfield Park on the West Side for five years.
Nowling pays 30 percent of her salary from work at a daycare center toward her rent. The rest is covered by Section 8, a federal subsidized housing program that allows families to rent in the private market.
“It’s a horrible experience. I’ve been discriminated against for many reasons because I am a voucher holder, because I am a black woman, because I am a single parent,” Nowling said.
A WBEZ analysis shows that an increasing percentage of the city’s 41,000 voucher holders are living in communities like Nowling’s — mostly black communities on the city’s South and West sides that have struggled for decades with disinvestment, job loss, underperforming schools and violence.
Collectively, more than 30,000 vouchers are located in majority black communities, a 24 percent increase over the past decade. In Nowling’s West Garfield Park neighborhood, the number of voucher holders has increased by 59 percent since 2009.
Meanwhile, the number of voucher holders living in the city’s majority-white communities near downtown or on the North Side has declined by nearly 25 percent in the past decade.
What’s more is that so few of the vouchers are located in those communities.
There are more vouchers in the majority-black communities of South Shore (3,487), on the South Side, and Austin (3,130), on the West Side, than in all of the city’s 19 majority-white communities combined (2,357), according to WBEZ’s analysis of CHA data on the location of voucher holders in the third quarter quarter of 2018.
Nowling has tried to move several times out of West Garfield Park with no luck. She can’t find a place. A landlord rejects her. Nowling said she feels stuck.
“Very stuck. Very, very stuck. It’s a stigma attached to Section 8 that we don’t want to work, we’re nasty, we’re not educated, we don’t take care of ourselves, our children are just reckless. We’re lying, we’re on welfare, whatever,” Nowling said.
WBEZ’s analysis finds that voucher holders have remained stuck in the same neighborhoods over the past decade.
Ten years ago WBEZ did the same analysis from public records. The neighborhoods with the most vouchers are the same: South Shore, Austin and Auburn Gresham. In all, more than 8,500 voucher holders today live in these three majority-black communities.
Those with the fewest are places like Forest Glen, Edison Park and Mount Greenwood — majority-white communities with high home values. In all, just 25 voucher holders call any of these communities home.
Despite calls to more widely integrate voucher holders throughout the city, the racial composition of where voucher families live hasn’t changed over the past decade.
15 communities in Chicago each have 1,000 or more vouchers—13 of them are majority black, none are majority white.
13 communities each have fewer than 50 vouchers—eight of them are majority white, none are majority black.
It’s yet another way that segregation is perpetuated in Chicago.
“I’ve heard folks say we have voucher holders in every single community area. And that’s great on its face,” said Patricia Fron, executive director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance. “But if you have 3,000 in one community area and 5 in another something else has to be going on there. We’ve talked about markets are different and costs are different but really a lot of times, it really boils down to continued racism.”
It’s illegal to discriminate against Section 8 residents in Chicago, but there’s little government enforcement to stop that discrimination. And Fron says that landlords turning away voucher holders can be a proxy to discriminate against African Americans.
The Chicago Housing Authority, which manages the Section 8 program in the city, points out that all 77 Chicago community areas have a voucher holder. Of course, more expensive neighborhoods are often out of reach for low-income families based on what the federal government pays the public housing agency. But CHA has a program in which it pays more than normal for a two-bedroom apartment in neighborhoods with higher rents.
It’s a limited program, and housing advocates say CHA can do more to open up more apartments in desired neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Planning Council even drafted up a plan that CHA has not committed to.
Fron says the goal isn’t to necessarily ensure that there’s a certain percentage of vouchers in each neighborhood.
“It’s more understanding what are the housing market barriers, what are the programmatic barriers and what are the barriers that are truly rooted in discrimination and finding ways that we tackle all of these issues so that everyone has equitable access to housing options across the city,” Fron said.
Her fair housing organization has a working group with Section 8 residents. One recommendation is that inspections take a shorter time so landlords don’t move on to another tenant who can move in faster. One improvement that’s been made is increasing the subsidy to people with disabilities because there’s such a small pool of accessible housing.
On the North Side, Debra Miller lives in a high rise senior building on a Section 8 voucher in Edgewater.
“I love living in this neighborhood,” Miller said.
Her temple is two blocks away, several grocery stores and banks are nearby, making Edgewater what is known as an opportunity area.
But Miller, a retired travel agent, and her husband didn’t get this place easy.
“It was very hard. We literally did not find a place to look in until almost the end of our second month,” Miller said.
They too were confronted by landlords who didn’t accept Section 8 vouchers. Again, that’s illegal. And Miller said she didn’t know that at the time.
“I was very surprised because we’re white. I didn’t think there’d be any problem.”
Low-income families of all races face discrimination because of how poor people are perceived — throw in race and the discrimination is two-fold.
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights emphasized that point in its 2018 Fair Housing Testing Report, which documented dozens of instances of housing discrimination in six Chicago communities. The group conducted dozens of fair housing tests, which in most cases featured pairs of testers posing as renters who differed by race (one black and one white) or source of income (one with a voucher and one without).
Voucher Holders Stuck In Place
Despite calls to more widely integrate Section 8 voucher holders throughout the city, the racial composition of where voucher families live hasn’t changed over the past decade.
Housing discrimination occurred in 43 percent of the 70 tests conducted, according to the report. The group determined that the vouchers were the source of discrimination in two-thirds of the cases where discrimination occurred. Most often the testers were told that their vouchers wouldn’t be accepted.
The highest rates of discrimination were in opportunity areas. Housing Choice Partners helps voucher holders move to these communities.
“The majority of our clients are single moms and they often just want a safe place for their kids to grow up and be close to a good school,” said Andrea Juracek, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Moms like Lekisha Nowling in West Garfield Park.
“My ideal situation would just be somewhere I can feel comfortable raising my children, where they can go outside and see how it feels to have a backyard to play or to be safe in and not worry about the conditions that they’re in now. And they’re not the worst, but they aren’t the best,” she said.
Nowling added that she can’t even allow herself to think of an ideal situation. She wouldn’t want to set herself up to think that way, because it’s been so far from her reality.