During Fair Housing Month, open housing advocates urge residents to seek help if they face …


After it became illegal in Illinois on Jan. 1 for landlords to discriminate against tenants who present housing choice vouchers, Kenya Barbar, testing coordinator for nonprofit housing agency Open Communities, said a stigma still exists for those using the safety net program.

Barbar, who noted that April is recognized as Fair Housing Month, said the Evanston-based 501c3 nonprofit Open Communities seeks to educate people on why housing discrimination is harmful, as well as serve those on the North Shore facing discrimination in housing.

The nonprofit performs a variety of services, including fair housing tests, in which it sends testers into housing offices to see if there is any evidence of discriminatory practices.

Barbar said one of the largest contributors to housing discrimination in the North Shore is the stigma that comes with using housing choice vouchers or living on fixed incomes.

“We also are still having issues with folks being compliant with the Just Housing Amendment, which offers protections to people who have been formerly incarcerated or who have a conviction record,” she said. “But they’re not the only areas.”

Open Communities welcomes people who have witnessed housing discrimination to phone them with a tip on their intake line. If more information or evidence is needed, Open Communities can interview others in the building or go forward with testing. An undercover tester who represents the protected class that is potentially being discriminated against is sent in to pretend to be interested in the property. If the tester is treated in a discriminatory manner, Open Communities can take steps from there to educate the owner or file complaints if needed.

“Testing is a well known practice that’s used across the country and affirmed by the highest courts as a legitimate way to see (if there is discrimination),” Assistant Director of Fair Housing at Open Communities Dominic Voz said. “It is kind of the only way to see through the walls of the housing provider and see how they’re conducting their business.”

Voz said that the discrimination people face tends to be more subtle and landlords will use proxies to race to deny tenants. Those include source of income and conviction history, both of which disproportionately negatively impact minority communities.

He said the first step to helping people is educating them as to what housing discrimination looks like so they can recognize it if and when it does happen. From there, steps can be taken including speaking with landlords, filing complaints with the county or even taking legal steps.

“There’s a variety of options and we do a lot of helping folks figure out what the best option is,” Voz said. “If they need that housing now and they know they’ve been discriminated against, maybe it’s a matter of us intervening and educating that housing provider or maybe we jump straight to a legal step.”

Claire Bacon, Open Communities Education and Outreach Coordinator, planned a workshop hosted in late April by the group with speaker Dino Robinson, a fair housing advocate who has compiled decades of documentation regarding discriminatory housing practices along the North Shore. The Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County also contributed to the event.

Attendees learned about tools historically used to prevent the movement and prosperity of Black residents, such as racially restrictive covenants — which were included in deeds to bar homeowners from selling their homes to Black people — and contract buying, a practice where potential Black homeowners were charged much higher down and monthly payments while also preventing them from building any equity in their homes.

“This was intentional. These were decisions made at the hands of systems, but because of this, we don’t have to accept this,” she said. “We can actually take intentional community action to work forward and try and move and change these things.”

Affordable housing and the lack of it along the North Shore is another issue the group says is contributing to housing inequality, especially in Evanston.

“People are working jobs and making stable incomes but they’re still being displaced and pushed out because they just can’t afford to pay more rent in this area,” Bacon said.

This hike in rents helps to solidify the racial landscape, according to Voz, because the impacts of the history of the area continue into the present day.

Robinson pulled up several maps of Evanston during his presentation. One came from a Reddit thread where someone asked what areas of Evanston were best to live in. One of two areas deemed as “NO” was a section encompassing the city’s 5th Ward.

“I talked to some Northwestern students earlier today and I asked them about their perception of living in the North Shore and coming to Northwestern University and how do you engage in the community and where to go. These were Black students who were told not to go to certain parts of Evanston because it could be dangerous,” he said. “And I keep thinking about this map here… that perception stays.”

To fix these systemic issues, Open Communities says good cause for eviction laws, expansion of the housing choice voucher program, reinvestment in improved public housing and prioritizing tenants to buy multifamily buildings once put up for sale could provide some help. Voz said housing advocates know of good solutions, but things depend on there being political will to make concrete changes.

For those who think they may have been a victim of housing discrimination, Barbar said they can reach out to Open Communities or another fair housing group in the area who can direct them to help. Anonymous tips can also be submitted at the nonprofit’s website or by calling 847-501-5760.

“If you reach out to one (organization), even if they can’t help you with your specific issue, they’ll know someone who can,” Barbar said. “Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out and folks will get you to the help you need.”

Open Communities has its roots in the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs and the Northern Suburban Housing Center, both of which came about as a result of the North Shore Summer Project that organized the famous 1965 rally on the Winnetka Village Green where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.

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May 3, 2023 at 06:56AM

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