She sought an affordable housing voucher in 1993. After 29 years, alderman reached the top of the waitlist

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Jeanette Taylor joined the city’s waitlists for affordable housing in 1993. Last month, her son — who wasn’t even alive when his mother first sought affordable housing — handed her a letter from the Chicago Housing Authority. It said Taylor’s family could finally apply for a Housing Choice Voucher.

“I sat on my bed for an hour. I’m like, ‘God, you got a sick sense of humor,’ ” said Taylor, who now represents the 20th Ward on the City Council.

She shared her story with a picture of the letter in a tweet that went viral last week. But Taylor says her experience isn’t unique and affordable housing activists agree. Thousands of Chicagoans struggle with decades long lulls on waitlists that keep affordable housing out of reach, they say.

Taylor is now working with the Chicago Housing Initiative to pass an ordinance that she believes can help address the long waits required to get into affordable housing. Taylor and affordable housing advocates are scheduled to discuss the proposal at a news conference Tuesday morning.

“We have a responsibility as government to provide housing. No matter where you live, no matter how much you make. It’s that simple,” Taylor said.

When Taylor joined the CHA’s waitlists — back when Starter jackets were in vogue and the Bulls closed out their first three-peat — affordable housing promised to give her space to raise a family. At the time she and her three kids shared a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, her sister and her sister’s child, Taylor told the Tribune.

She said she got no response for 15 years. In the meantime, Taylor worked at a bar at night and went to school during the day. She said she had to choose between paying for after-school programs and shoes for her kids or paying for the gas bill in the winter. And if it wasn’t for her mother’s support, Taylor said, she and her children might have been homeless.

In 2008, the CHA sent her a letter offering housing, Taylor said. She had made it to the top of the waitlist for a property, but it was 60 blocks away, far from the school her kids attended and her mother worked, or the bus stop where Taylor waited to get to her job.

Most importantly, the city told her that her son couldn’t be on the lease or live in the apartment since he had just graduated from high school and didn’t yet have a job, she said.

She couldn’t move so far away and kick her son out, she said, so she decided to stay on the waitlist.

“Part of me is ashamed, because I’m made to feel ashamed for asking for assistance when I really needed it. But the city should feel ashamed, because it took them 29 years,” said Taylor, who was elected to the council in 2019.

Since her tweet went viral, people from her ward and beyond have called her office to say they are stuck on CHA waitlists, she said.

“It’s a feature, not a bug,” said Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of organizations that work with and advocate for low-income Chicago renters. “The system is set up as an obstacle course. It’s not set up to facilitate them getting housing.”

The people Washington’s organization works with often remain on the CHA’s waitlists for Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing or project-based vouchers for at least of 10 years, he said.

The system can create even more turmoil for people with disabilities who are in need of specific types of housing, according to Cathleen O’Brien, a housing-focused community organizer for Access Living, an organization that supports people with disabilities and a member of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

O’Brien said she worked with one woman, who had a disability, on a waitlist who the CHA kept showing inaccessible housing to for 23 years. Each time the woman was shown an inaccessible unit and turned it down, she was sent to the bottom of the waitlist, O’Brien said.

She said she has never heard of a person with a disability waiting less than six years on a CHA waitlist. Most people wait 10 to 20 years, she added. For people with disabilities in need of housing, the years or decades on the waitlists make it more difficult to get work and medical care, O’Brien said.

“It just means total instability for the duration of that wait,” she said.

The CHA declined to comment on Taylor’s experience but spokesman Matthew Aguilar said in a statement that wait times for public housing and project-based housing can range from six months to 25 years.

“We fully agree that more resources are needed to address the need for affordable housing in Chicago and around the nation,” Aguilar said.

Most properties on a CHA website show expected wait times of 10 years or more.

Taylor said her proposal would allow organizations that work directly with people seeking housing, such as city ward offices, community organizations and homeless shelters to place those people on a central waitlist and better keep track of the particular needs they might have. The goal is to clarify what housing is actually available, to shift the burden of finding affordable housing from people in need to organizations with resources and to more quickly serve the city’s most vulnerable, Washington said .

Taylor has no shortage of ideas about how to get more Chicagoans in need into public housing. She wants to use the 4,000 vacant lots in her ward and the unused units across the city to house people and to bring together the major housing authorities of the city to open a dialogue about the reality of affordable housing.

“What’s affordable to you ain’t what’s affordable to me,” she said.

Above all, though, she wants affordable housing authorities to listen to the community organizations that have studied what makes affordable housing difficult to secure and hear their ideas to address it.

Taylor will not be using that long-awaited Housing Choice Voucher. She said she has a home and wants it to go to a family that actually needs it.

Still, for whoever gets the next CHA letter telling them they are at the top of the waitlist, the wait for housing likely won’t be over. It often takes people with vouchers over a year to get accepted and moved into an affordable unit, Washington said.

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com

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June 7, 2022 at 05:09AM

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