If you ride the commuter train from Chicago 40 miles west to Aurora, Ill., you’ll pass towns with small shops on tree-lined streets, lush woods, golf courses–and plenty of large single-family homes. But for working-class and poor people who live in Aurora–like more and more cities, large and small, across the country–there is a hidden housing emergency.
With a population of about 143,000, Aurora has the kind of affordable housing crisis that is usually associated with larger cities like Chicago and New York City. Aurora was named the “City of Lights” in 1881 for being the first city in the world to light its streets with electricity.
But the lights are dim in the hallways of Harbor Village public housing. Its residents are forced to endure all the humiliations–and dangers–of substandard public housing.
In 2001, Harbor Village resident Tamika James’ 2-month-old daughter Shamia died from respiratory syncytial virus, a condition that is the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia in babies. The cause of this tragic death soon became clear to residents–a mold that was growing on the walls and ceilings of the cold, damp apartments.
Cynthia Ralls is an affordable-housing activist from the Aurora area and a founder of a grassroots coalition of residents called JUST Housing. She told Socialist Worker about one resident, who was undergoing breast cancer treatment while living in an apartment where the mold was growing unseen in her closet. “For an immune-compromised person, this is incredibly dangerous,” Ralls said.
Several residents complain of respiratory problems, skin rashes and infections. And if the conditions weren’t bad enough, strict rules and restrictions required of public housing residents leave them unsure when they might find themselves thrown out on the streets.
Mary Taylor had lived in Aurora Housing Authority’s (AHA) Southwind apartment complex for more than 16 years. She was president of the first Tenant Council and worked closely with police and the AHA to make Southwind what she hoped could be a safe place to live. But that didn’t stop her from being evicted after another resident made the outrageous claim that her son–12 years old at the time–“threw a bomb” at him.
Under a federal zero-tolerance policy upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, local housing authorities have the right to evict public housing tenants if anyone living with or visiting that tenant used drugs in or near their home. In Aurora, the policy was extended beyond drug use to include all violent crimes, whether actual or threatened.
AHA claims that its so-called “zero-tolerance” policies have cut down on crime. But the only crime in the case of Taylor and her son was their eviction. “Considering my time in housing and as a resident who helped create a safe and positive environment and worked very closely with the Housing Authority for 16 years, to be totally overlooked and kicked to the curb without a hearing was outrageous,” Taylor said.
After eviction, housing choices vanish into thin air. Living with family or friends is a risky prospect if they also live in public housing, because they could be thrown out for offering you a place to stay.
In Aurora, one “option” is the backyard of Hesed House–where, for almost 15 years, a “Tent City” has served as a shelter for homeless people in the summertime. This year, Tent City had to turn away about 95 people because there wasn’t enough room.
If George W. Bush gets his way, the crisis of affordable housing will get even worse. The Bush administration has announced that it is cutting back on Section 8 housing vouchers. With a Section 8 voucher, eligible residents pay 30 percent of their income in rent, and the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department pays the rest.
Bush’s 2005 budget proposal is $1.6 billion below the amount needed to maintain the current level of assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, some 250,000 households could lose vouchers. In addition, Bush wants to distribute voucher funding in block grants with fewer federal restrictions, meaning that individual states could increase the amount that residents pay–and tens of thousands more people could end up on the street.
As Ralls puts it, “Bush’s plan is to end homelessness in 10 years. I want to know exactly how he’s going to achieve that with budget cuts to HUD housing. If anything, he’s creating more homelessness. The budget cuts that are now coming down are going to make more people homeless–more families, more seniors, everyone. Change is going to have to come from the people themselves who live the problems.”
ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.