Housing Crisis in Highland Park

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The surest evidence cialis soft tabs of our national housing crisis can be found under the city’s viaducts, or in the city’s emergency shelters, or in the nooks and crannies of the newly rehabbed Lower Wacker Drive, where the encampments of homeless men and women have become semi-permanent. Evidence of the national housing crisis can even be found, however, in well-off suburbs like Highland Park, an upscale community of luxurious, expansive homes and manicured lawns located on Lake Michigan’s North Shore.

The situation in places like Highland Park, moreover, can help explain why the Chicago Housing Authority seems to be having so much trouble relocating its tenants under the agency’s “Plan for Transformation.” Public housing tenants, low- and middle-income families are all being forced to compete over a shrinking supply of affordable housing. Like a game of musical chairs, those who are not quick enough will end up without a home of their own.

Highland Park is a long way from the neighborhoods where most residents are looking for housing. The Sept. 5 edition of the Highland Park News nevertheless contained evidence that low- and middle-income families are tapping the same limited supply of affordable housing on which CHA is depending to house public housing tenants.

In a letter to the editor under the headline, “Middle class being squeezed out of city,” public school teacher Michael J. Roth wrote about his difficulties finding housing that he can afford. “I fear that in a few years, Highland Park will be a city populated only by high-income families with a few token low-income housing units here and there.

“The middle class, like the buffalo, will have to move on,” Roth wrote. Roth explained that he was a victim of the rapid rise in property values in Highland Park during the good economy in the ’90s. Though the value of his home in Highland Park went up in those years, so did his property taxes, which are computed as a percentage of his home’s value. “As a public school teacher who falls into the low- to moderate-income range…I face an enormous financial challenge each year when my property taxes are due,” Roth wrote.

“Property taxes take almost 10 weeks of my net income each year, and each year, the taxes increase at a significantly higher rate than my salary. In spite of my desire to continue living in Highland Park, I’m not sure I can sustain the level of taxation for very many more years.” The Highland Park City Council has already taken some steps to save the affordable housing that does exist there and is apparently aiming to build some more. The City Council passed an ordinance that any time a developer wants to demolish an existing property in the community, they must pay $10,000. Those funds go into a Housing Trust Fund, which the City Council will use to build new affordable housing.

But Roth called on the Highland Park City Council to do more to help people like him stay in the area. “I urge the City Council to consider the plight of city residents like me who are certainly not poor, but who are squeezed out of the community because they are in the middle class,” Roth wrote.

If Roth is unable to stay in Highland Park, wherever he goes, he will be competing with thousands of other families in similar circumstances. Few communities, after all, have taken even the modest steps that Highland Park has and affordable units – especially affordable rental units – are being replaced rapidly by condominiums, town houses and upscale housing.

The supply of affordable housing in the entire region is shrinking. That means that middle-class families in the region are competing for housing at exactly the moment that CHA is seeking to place thousands of families in the private market. Under its “Plan for Transformation,” the CHA has promised to build mixed-income communities in place of the current public housing developments. Because CHA is tearing down buildings much faster than it is building replacement housing, many residents are moving into the private market using Housing Choice Vouchers – the new term for Section 8 vouchers and certificates.

Not surprisingly, many CHA families are reporting that they cannot find housing with their vouchers, or that the housing they are finding is substandard or in neighborhoods with crime and social problems as bad as in the developments they left. And also not surprisingly, the CHA is way behind in relocating residents. CHA originally predicted that it would move 2,464 families in 2002, of which 991 would move into the private market using housing choice vouchers.

Instead, agency officials reported recently that they moved just 789 families through September of this year, of which 338 residents moved into the private market using housing choice vouchers. That’s just over 34 percent of the number of families CHA originally projected. At this pace, the agency’s 10-year plan will turn into a 30-year effort.

There are other reasons that the CHA has failed to relocate CHA families. Resident leaders and advocates have complained for years that the agency’s social services are doing a poor job of preparing residents for relocation. They also complain that the relocation services themselves are inadequate. CHA officials might respond that they are doing their best with limited resources. But the CHA, like every other government agency, is choosing to spend its funds on some things and not on others.

State and federal governments invest in prisons instead of schools and in tax cuts instead of social programs. The CHA is no different. The agency is spending just $7 million in the coming year on its Service Connector program, its main social service effort, while it is giving $13 million to the Chicago Police Department to provide ‘extra’ service to CHA residents – despite the obvious lack of minimal police services in the developments.

Likewise, the City of Chicago could have dedicated the tens of millions of dollars it spent on the Lower Wacker Drive rehab to affordable housing initiatives or other social programs. Ironically, if the city had spent that money on housing, the homeless people who live on Lower Wacker Drive might have had new homes and wouldn’t need to sleep under the city’s financial center.

Until voters demand that government agencies change their priorities, efforts like the CHA Plan for Transformation have little chance of success. When even middle-class families in places in Highland Park are having trouble finding housing, it’s not reasonable to expect CHA residents will be able to fit in a private housing market.

If even well-off communities like Highland Park are experiencing a housing shortage, it helps to explain why those CHA residents who are trying to find housing in the private market are experiencing difficulty. Instead of forcing low- and middle-income families into this cynical game of musical chairs, we should make sure that everyone has a place to sit down.

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