Throughout the last year, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the once-in-a-generation push for civil rights of 2020, one key principle has remained at the fore: equity.
The topic of equity is at the core of most pressing issues we face today. Events that seem like they should affect everyone equally — a deadly virus, police brutality — in fact negatively impact some communities more than others, namely low-income communities of color. Nowhere is this more clear than in access to housing — where we choose, or are permitted, to live.
The challenges of the past year are a reminder that we must keep the principle of equity front and center to build strong communities that can weather future crises.
In Cook County, we have taken proactive steps to make sure our most vulnerable renters — our Housing Choice Voucher recipients — have a fair shake at finding suitable housing. And now, with the introduction of the Homelessness Prevention Act, our lawmakers on the state level have the chance to do the same. We’re here to urge them to seize the opportunity.
Fair Housing Month, commemorated every April, is dedicated to raising awareness of fair housing rights and increasing efforts to end housing discrimination. Over 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the struggle continues to ensure that everyone is afforded their rights under the law when searching for safe, decent and affordable housing.
This has historically been an uphill battle — especially for our Black and Brown neighbors. Black residents particularly have felt the systemic oppression that exists the housing market, having been shut out of many communities on the basis of their race.
Even today, renters of color are more likely to be cost burdened and to face eviction. Families who receive Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers, are also often turned away from housing, even though the voucher program is designed to promote “choice” in where folks live.
In Cook County, with all its rich diversity, we believe we have a special responsibility to make sure all of our residents are equally able to find housing that meets their desires, is suitable for their needs, and comes at a price they can afford. Through special programs like HACC’s Community Choice Program, residents who want to relocate to neighborhoods with high-performing schools and abundant economic opportunities receive personalized support.
Our team has helped over 300 families move to these kinds of “Opportunity Areas” over the past three years.
We are also one of more than 90 jurisdictions in the nation, along with 18 states, to include source-of-income as a protected class, so that residents will not be turned away due to their status as voucher holders. Most recently, in January, the Cook County Board passed the Residential Tenant Landlord Ordinance, which protects renters from predatory interest payments; excessive security deposits or late fees; from illegal lockouts; and from retaliatory conduct.
We are proud of the strides we’ve made in Cook County, but Fair Housing Month reminds us that the fight is not over. We must continue to push for what is right and fair in our communities. Luckily, the rest of the state of Illinois now has an opportunity to join us in the fight against inequity. HB 2775, or the Homelessness Prevention Act, which recently passed the Housing Committee in the Illinois House of Representatives, proposes to expand SOI protections to the entire state. This would mean that all voucher holders, regardless of where they live in Illinois, would be protected by law against discrimination based on how they plan to pay.
The impact would be immediate and widespread. voucher recipients in jurisdictions with source-of-income protections are more likely to use their vouchers successfully within the allotted time to find housing and less likely to be denied by landlords. They are also more likely to live in low-poverty areas. Data suggest that source-of-income protection laws may even improve landlords’ opinions of the housing voucher program.
Source-of-income protections have been crucial in preserving the rights of HACC residents in Cook County to choose their communities. Yet only half of Housing Choice Voucher families live in jurisdictions with source-of-income protection. The roughly 30,000 families in Illinois outside Cook County who use the vouchers deserve the same protections Cook County families now enjoy.
Fair Housing Month provides an opportunity to elevate a most basic right: that everyone, no matter their profession, income or station in life, is entitled to clean, safe and affordable housing. But the principles of Fair Housing Month must be more than just words. We must take action.
In the spirit of Fair Housing Month, we urge our colleagues in the state legislature to seize the opportunity. Our most vulnerable residents need you now, more than ever.
• Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Richard Monocchio is executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County.
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April 26, 2021 at 01:06AM