Tiara is a African-American mother of two small children who longed for a better Chicago public school for her six-year-old son.
Last year, Tiara decided to move out of Bronzeville and began searching for apartments in the pricey River North area.
But when she mentioned she had a housing choice voucher, or Section 8, landlords told Tiara they wouldn’t take her voucher. A few places said “yes” over the phone. So she’d arrive on time, with a paycheck stub and a rental deposit. But no matter — Tiara says those places rejected her too.
Tiara is painfully shy and asked that her last name not be used. As she recounted her story, Tiara dabbed her teary eyes with a tissue.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this. I couldn’t believe it. It still took me awhile to like really come to the fact that I was discriminated against. That hurt so bad,” she said.
Tiara filed complaints against four property owners and management companies with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. The complaints are currently under review.
Tiara’s allegations aren’t occurring in a vacuum. Earlier this month, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued a report that found rampant racial discrimination in housing.
Tens of thousands of Chicago families rent in the private market using a housing voucher. Renters with vouchers only have to pay a portion of their rent. The Chicago Housing Authority administers the program and picks up the rest. CHA has been criticized for putting families in poor segregated neighborhoods in the city.
In 2011, the public housing agency started a mobility program. In very limited cases, CHA will pay more in rent if a family moves to so-called “opportunity areas.” About 10 percent of voucher holders are in this program.
Opportunity areas are communities with fewer than 20 percent in poverty and low-subsidized housing saturation. That’s how Tiara was able to consider high rises with monthly rents upwards of $3,000 a month.
“It allows families an opportunity to explore areas of the city that they might not otherwise be familiar with,” said Mary Howard, executive vice president of resident services for CHA.
Many neighborhoods with the highest number of vouchers also have the highest poverty and crime rates in the city.
“Families that live in opportunity areas on average have higher earnings than those that do not live in opportunity areas,” Howard said. She added that these areas can have higher retention rates. “So that once a family does move and becomes integrated in their new community, that they’re not moving is success.”
In segregated Chicago, North Side neighborhoods may seem inaccessible for some families in the voucher program. There can be feelings of isolation. CHA has mobility counselors who try to alleviate those concerns.
But that was never an issue for Tiara. She said in her case it was pushback from the rental community. It’s illegal for Chicago landlords to say at the outset that they won’t take Section 8 vouchers.
Danielle McCain is an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and she represents Tiara.
“We want her voice heard as a voucher holder. We want these landlords to have to address these issues. Whatever damages we’re able to recover, those are ways in which we can influence landlords going forward not to have conduct such as this in the future,” McCain said.
McClain said housing voucher discrimination is common, and not just in affluent areas. She pointed to her group’s recent report as evidence, but also says a lot of discrimination goes unreported.
As for Tiara, she eventually found a happy ending in a Streeterville apartment building that accepted her voucher.
“I love it,” Tiara said. “You have parks everywhere. You have bus stops everywhere. You have stores, easy to get to. Healthy food. Healthy food almost everywhere. So it’s more like convenience.”
And most importantly, Tiara said, her six-year-old son attends a high-performing public school. And he’s thriving.