(CHICAGO) — As a 19-year-old, Jeanette Taylor was a single mother raising three children inside a one-bedroom apartment she shared with her mother, brother, sister and her niece. She knew they needed their own space, and fast, so she turned to the Chicago Housing Authority for housing assistance.
She was left on the waiting list for 29 years.
Taylor, now a Chicago alderwoman, said her story is indicative of the housing crisis people continue to face, so she’s taking legislative action to address the housing crisis and the system that keeps change from happening.
“I paid taxes, I worked, I volunteered at the kids’ school,” Taylor told ABC News. “I was doing what they say you’re supposed to do and when I reached out to the institutions, and my city that was supposed to help me, I didn’t get the help that I needed.”
Accessibility to affordable housing for low-income households is an issue plaguing the nation, Taylor said.
In Chicago, before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chicago Coalition for Homelessness reported that “an estimated 58,273 people” were experiencing homelessness in 2019. In one night alone, over 326,000 people experienced sheltered homelessness in the United States, according to the 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
Having struggled with navigating the housing system in her own city, she made it her priority to reach out to the Chicago Housing Authority upon taking office in 2019 to address the city’s high rates of homelessness.
With decadeslong waitlists and the livelihoods of thousands of families hanging in the balance of housing voucher rotations, Taylor knew the city lacked a substantial commitment to change.
“We know sending them into shelters, and transitional housing is horrible,” Taylor said. “We got a real opportunity to talk about how do we help the homeless population in the city.”
The director of public affairs of the Chicago Department of housing, Eugenia Orr, told ABC News the city is taking steps to combat the issue.
Orr said the City Lots for Working Families (CL4WF) program is an effort to promote the development of affordable housing on vacant lots throughout the Chicago area. In addition, the program works to “incentivize home builders” and provide vacant lots to affordable housing developers.
“Homes must be made available to qualified buyers with incomes up to 140% of area median income,” Orr said.
Although the program repurposes the land, the link between the vacant buildings and accessibility for low-income households is part of Taylor’s proposed Accountable Housing and Transparency ordinance.
Taylor introduced the ordinance in April this year to centralize efforts in housing the homeless and those in need. Other key features of the ordinance include prioritizing the displaced and disabled, centralizing leasing, a single waitlist, “interagency coordination” among all Chicago-based public health and housing institutions, and a requirement for each affordable housing unit to “achieve and maintain 97% occupancy rate.”
By consolidating the separate platforms of applying to affordable housing created by different agencies, Taylor said the ordinance aims to simplify the process so that more people and families can obtain safe housing in a reasonable amount of time.
Taylor, who shared her story last month about finally being added to the top of the housing waitlist, said she did so to open a larger discussion on the national issue of accessibility to affordable housing.
“The system should be ashamed, not me,” Taylor said.
Soon after Taylor’s post went viral, the CHA released a statement addressing news reports highlighting their long wait times.
“CHA’s public housing and project-based voucher waitlists are always open and have wait times that range from as little as six months, to as much as 25 years,” the CHA said in a statement going on to explain its system of recycling the 47,000 vouchers that the federal government grants to the CHA.
“The number allotted has not increased in years,” the CHA said. “A voucher only becomes available to a new family on the waitlist after it is no longer being used by an existing voucher holder.”
Taylor said she knows of the wait pains families go through. When she finally got a call saying they had found her an apartment, they said her son could not live there because he had just graduated and turned 18.
“After completing my application, the young lady told me that I wasn’t gonna be able to put him on my lease,” Taylor said. “She was like, ‘if we find him in your unit, you will lose your CHA housing."”
Taylor had to either rejoin the waitlist, or move without her son.
“I’ll be homeless before I put my 18-year-old son out,” Taylor said.
As years passed, Taylor said she’d received a letter assuring her that her number was getting closer to the point of selection. Finally, after meeting with the head of the Chicago Housing Authority 2019 Taylor said she received a letter on May 20 notifying her that she made it to the top of the waitlist and could begin the application process.
“I just sat on the bed,” Taylor said. “The kid that handed me the mail, is the kid that I just had when I applied for this, who will be 29.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that there are over 970,000 households residing in public housing units across the nation, a number that fluctuates daily.
For many families like Taylor’s, she said many feel like “there’s no choice” except just to continue fighting.
According to a 2021 point-in-time count conducted by HUD, 122,849 African Americans experienced sheltered homelessness compared to 3,055 Asians, 6,460 American Indian/Alaska Natives, 3,785 Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islanders, and 113,294 white people.
By taking the opportunity to fix a persistent housing issue in her ward, she hopes the housing crisis and racial housing disparities can be transparently addressed by the federal government.
“Black women, you figure it out, and I had to,” Taylor said.
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