She waited 29 years for housing assistance. Now she’s fighting for change

Jeanette Taylor was a single mother looking to move her family out of the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her mother in Chicago.

She has worked in retail and as a community organizer. The idea of ​​affording her own space in 1993, with the three children she then had, was anything but out of the question. She turned to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and asked for help.

It took Taylor 29 years to reach the top of CHA’s list, revealing a system that is failing to perform its duties and help its residents.

Taylor, now 47 and a mother of five, is in a much different position in 2022 than when she applied. After decades of work in community organizing, she became Alderman of Chicago, taking office in 2019. Only recently has her financial situation been more stable so she can pay market rents due of his governmental position.

Taylor told NPR that while she could pay her rent now, that hasn’t always been the case.

“I don’t pay my gas bill between September and April so I can provide my kids with the little things they need,” Taylor said. “Extra t-shirts, sneakers, boots, coats – kids grow up. I’m in a system where I have to choose.”

/ Jeanette Taylor

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Jeanette Taylor

Jeanette Taylor and her three oldest children.

The May 20 letter from the Chicago Housing Authority was not the first time Taylor had been contacted by CHA.

She got a call about applying in 2004. What should have been a relief came with a major caveat: her son, who had just graduated from high school, couldn’t live with her.

Faced with the choice of pushing her child into homelessness or risking eviction, Taylor could not pursue the housing option at the time.

“I was asked to choose between housing and my son, and I have to choose my son all the time,” Taylor told NPR.

Over the years, the alderman said, she received calls every two to three years asking if she wanted to stay in the system. She always kept her information up to date, knowing that a rent increase or personal emergency could push her family into housing insecurity at any time.

With the overdue government aid program unable to help her, she had one saving grace: her mother.

Jeanette Taylor, her mother and youngest child in 2006.

/ Jeanette Taylor

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Jeanette Taylor

Jeanette Taylor, her mother and youngest child in 2006.

Without her mother, she would have been homeless, moved into the shelter system, or kicked out of Chicago altogether. Taylor considered moving to another city in search of affordable housing. But it was out of the question that she leaves behind her mother, firmly anchored in Chicago.

“I wasn’t going to leave my mom,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t in any way. First and foremost, she was my safety net, she was my sanity and she helped me raise my children.”

How the public housing system works

Experts say Taylor’s story is not an anomaly and is representative of how the system worked.

Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, says the system is working as expected, which means it’s not helping the most people.

“What happened with the alder is a feature, not a bug, of the system,” Washington told NPR. “The system works exactly as it was designed.”

ACS recognized that more needs to be done to help people in these situations.

The Chicago Housing Authority, which receives funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, maintains a few different waiting lists. It manages social housing, housing choice vouchers (sometimes called Section 8) and project vouchers. People will contribute about 30% of their income towards rent and CHA will pay the rest.

The waitlist for housing choice vouchers is currently closed and was last open in 2014, CHA told NPR in an email. When it last opened, 75,000 families were added to the list.

Waiting lists for social housing and project-based vouchers are still open, says CHA. However, wait times “range from as little as 6 months to 25 years,” depending on availability and specific needs.

“CHA currently has 47,000 housing choice vouchers that it receives from the federal government,” CHA said in an email. “The allocated number has not increased in many years. We fully agree that more resources are needed to meet the need for affordable housing in Chicago and across the country.”

New vouchers only become available to families on the waitlist after an existing voucher is no longer used. On average, 2,400 families leave the program each year, according to CHA.

How Chicago Got Here

Multiple factors are at play in the public housing crisis facing Chicago. The public housing deficit, long wait times on waiting lists and ineffective housing voucher programs mean that many families are stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

“Officially they’ll tell you the wait list, the time on a wait list for most people is 4.3 years,” Washington said. “But for the record, I’m doing this for a living right now. I know, I personally know hundreds of people who are on this waiting list. I don’t know anyone who’s been on this waiting list for less than 10 years.”

In 1999, the city launched the Plan the transformation, which created a net loss of 25,000 affordable housing units. The goal was to relocate residents to mixed housing and renovate the remaining units. This plan was due to end in 2010. However, the system fell short of what it was supposed to be and contributed to the housing crisis, experts say.

Kate Walz, an attorney at the National Housing Law Project, said Chicago has a long history of housing discrimination and needs to work on its public housing.

“Families like Alderman Taylor and many others across the city have been on these waiting lists for years, in part because of this loss of public housing, the failure of the CHA year after year to resolve vacancy issues in some of the developments,” Walz told NPR.

In addition to the limited availability of housing choice vouchers, community development corporations maintain their own waiting lists for certain projects. These lists are different for each building and are specific to a certain neighborhood. The decentralized and inefficient nature of the system has resulted in many vacant units not being matched with people in need of housing.

In search of solutions

One of the issues activists are working to address is vacant housing.

Working with community organizations, Taylor created an ordinance currently in the legislative cycle that would mandate updates to the system. These updates include the creation of a central registry to better match those in need of affordable housing with available units, Washington explained.

“We have a responsibility, not just as elected officials, but as people empowered to do good by the people we’re paid to represent. Period. So I don’t care if you’re the clerk answering on the phone. It’s our responsibility to help people,” Taylor said.

One thing Taylor has made clear is that people have the answers to these issues – they just haven’t been listened to.

Initially hesitant to go public with her housing story, Taylor felt it was important to speak out on behalf of people who are often fired.

“I was made to feel like I didn’t belong,” Taylor said. “But who tells the story of a mother who feeds her children and goes to bed hungry because they don’t earn enough? Who tells the story of being on a housing list for 29 years?

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