May 10th 2019
Chicago, IL. – Twenty-five tenants and their supporters picketed outside the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices at 77 W Jackson in downtown Chicago today. The tenants were sick and tired of inaction on the part of their landlords and the lack of oversight by HUD. One tenant asked, “How can I celebrate Mother’s Day in my home when my kitchen cabinets are falling apart?”
It was almost a year ago today that HUD representatives met with tenants at a Town Hall meeting of subsidized renters organized by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO). At the Town Hall, HUD representatives promised action. They assured tenants they would come out to the buildings and hold the landlords accountable to very basic housing standards.
For the tenants living in Barbara Jean Wright Courts, Germano Millgate and Indian Trails Apartments, HUD has not made good on its promise. Tenants are living with rats, bed bugs, holes in the walls, elevators that don’t work, plumbing problems and more. One parent, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, is worried that DCFS is going to take her children away because the conditions are so bad.
Tenants were preparing to deliver a letter to HUD officials demanding a meeting. As the tenants chanted, “HUD don’t delay, Repairs in time for Mother’s Day!” outside of HUD’s downtown office, Joseph Galvan, HUD’s Regional Administrator for Region V, came out to talk. Jesse Johnson of Barbara Jean Wright Court asked Mr. Galvan to meet with the tenants and to inspect the complexes. Mr. Galvan agreed to inspect the above three apartment complexes and to meet with the tenants in his office on May 31st. The tenants left feeling fired up and ready to keep the pressure on HUD and their landlords to provide decent and safe housing.
While many of us were revving up for the holidays, other Chicago residents were standing up against violations of civil and human rights across our city. On December 21, 2016 human rights organizers held a vigil in Ravenswood in front of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s home.
Coffins, carnations, and candles symbolized the deaths of affordable housing, shelters, mental wellness clinics, health resources, school closings and the 700+ humans whose lives were ended by gun violence, including unjust fatal police shootings. Demonstrators expressed that community violence is not a stand alone issue, instead it is interconnected to the institutional violence and oppression of our city’s historically racist, classist, and patriarchal politics and policies.
In the South Loop, public funds are currently being used to construct an arena for a private institution- DePaul University’s new athletic arena. Public lands which were once public housing sites like the Ida B. Wells housing complex in Bronzeville is now home to Mariano’s, after CHA and the city broke the promise they made to taxpayers and residents to rebuild the public housing they tore down during the Plan for Transformation (deconstruction of Chicago’s housing projects).
Mientras muchos de nosotros nos estamos preparando para las festividades, muchos residentes de Chicago están alzándose en contra de la violación de los derechos humanos y civiles que se practican a lo largo y ancho de nuestra ciudad. Este 21 de diciembre del 2016, organizadores de derechos humanos, realizaron una vigilia en el barrio de Ravenswood en frente del hogar del Alcalde de la ciudad de Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel.
Ataúdes, claveles y velas fueron los símbolos para representar no solo la muerte de viviendas accesibles, sino también la muerte de las clínicas de salud mental, recursos de salud, a clausura de escuelas públicas, y las 700 vidas humanas cuyas vidas fueron cortadas producto de la violencia con armas de fuego, incluyendo los disparos fatales perpetrados por la policía, que se sospecha eran injustificados. Los manifestantes afirmaron que la violencia en la comunidad no es un problema por si solo, sino que está vinculado con la violencia institucional y la opresión de parte de nuestra ciudad que históricamente ha practicado políticas y legislaciones racistas, clasistas y patriarcales.
En el “South Loop” fondos públicos están siendo utilizados para subsidiar la construcción de un estadio nuevo para una institución privada, la Universidad de Depaul. Terrenos públicos que alguna vez fueron sitios utilizados para viviendas públicas como por ejemplo el Complejo Habitacional Ida B. Wells en Bronzeville ahora está ubicado un supermercado Mariano, debido a que CHA y la ciudad rompieron la promesa que hicieran a los contribuyentes y a los residentes a través del Plan de Transformación (la demolición de los proyectos de vivienda de Chicago ) de reconstruir cierta cantidad de viviendas públicas y viviendas accesibles.
El derecho a una vivienda es fundamental para el desarrollo no solo de personas saludables sino que también de hogares saludables y comunidades saludables. El derecho a una vivienda es un DERECHO HUMANO Nosotros Exigimos un cese a la muerte de viviendas accesibles y a legislaciones violentas que mantienen la división de raza y clase aumentando el número de personas indigentes, la brutalidad policial, la violencia autorizada por el estado, la violencia en la comunidad, la educación deficiente y la privación a los derechos económicos
Without the protection of laws like Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, renters in unincorporated communities in suburban Cook County are often the victims of unscrupulous landlords and property managers.
Tenants also reported that Caroline Echo, representing Tri-Unity, showed up at their door and demanded May rent payments, telling tenants if they didn’t pay she’d return with police to forcibly evict them. Residents said Echo had with her two members of the auxiliary police unit, affiliated with the City of Rosemont.
The “auxiliary police” operate independently of the Rosemont Police Department (RPD). RPD has told residents that the Auxiliary Police do have a record of being at the complex. RPD also pointed out that only the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has statutory authority on evictions, and even then they cannot be implemented without a court order.
MTO has helped residents organize a community meeting to discuss their options – which are limited in the absence of local laws addressing landlord-tenants issues; and MTO has helped residents secure an attorney who has formally demanded a meeting with the new management company to address the situation. The deadline for a response to the letter from the attorney was Monday, June 20.
So far, Tri-City has stonewalled tenants, MTO, and the press. Updates to follow…
Demonstrators interrupted Mayor Emanuel’s speech Wednesday morning during Crain’s #FutureChicago Conference to demand passage of the #KeepingThePromise Ordinance. Wealthy business leaders and other members of Chicago’s elite met to discuss the “future” of the city, but there was no seat at the table for those most affected by their policies. As more and more Chicagoans take up residence under viaducts or in tents, Rahm’s CHA continues to bulldoze and sell off public housing, all while sitting on nearly $450 million in unspent federal cash given to the city specifically for affordable housing. The language of “fiscal responsibility” is often used by those in power to hide policies that result in real human devastation.
Activists made this point by disrupting the Mayors remarks inside while demonstrators outside held a press conference and distributed information to passersby. Wednesday’s action sought to to raise the profile of the housing crisis facing low-income communities of color, who are being displaced from countless Chicago communities as market rents skyrocket and wages fail to keep pace. Just today, the MacArthur Foundation released a study showing that three-quarters of city residents believe we are still in the middle of the housing crisis or that the worse is yet to come. Inside the swanky Palmer House Hilton demonstrators – including Al, a 90-year-old World War II combat veteran – disrupted the Mayor as he addressed Chicago’s elite. Watch Below:
— Chicago Tenants (@TenantsRights) June 15, 2016
“The mayor is failing to keep the Plan for Transformation’s promises to rebuild public housing after demolition, instead continuing to demolish, convert, and privatize the city’s remaining public housing,” said Liz Brake of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. “Unless the mayor changes course, he will deepen the city’s affordable housing crisis, which is displacing people of color. That’s not sustainable or equitable.”
By holding the Chicago Housing Authority to higher standards about CHA’s use of federal and city funds, we can literally provide housing to tens of thousands of Chicago families currently struggling to provide their children with a decent, stable home. According to CHA’s latest financial report (FY2012), the Chicago Housing Authority is sitting on surplus cash of more than $432 million— To put that in perspective, CHA’s cash stockpile is larger than the whole City of Chicago’s budget deficit for 2014.
Despite the insecurity and pessimism about the housing crisis, Chicago residents believe the situation can improve. MacArthur’s housing study found that 70% of city residents think a great deal can be done to solve the housing crisis. There is no one solution, but there are many things that we can do today to improve housing. First? We can pass the Keeping The Promise Ordinance now!
Thank you to all of the members of the Chicago Housing Initiative who participated in this action! For more information about this story or to get involved, please contact Philip at 773-292-4980 ext 246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Every day the Metropolitan Tenants Organization works with renters who are facing the negative effects of gentrification and other economic forces that threaten their housing. Thousands of low-income renters and homeowners are displaced every year by a property law system with misplaced priorities. As a society, we all pay when people are involuntarily displaced because of increased crime, skyrocketing medical costs and a failing educational system. It is imperative that as a nation we confront this housing crisis and ensure that everyone has a home.
The insights of visionary Black leader Malcolm X, who would have been 91 this year, are key to the discussion around gentrification and housing. Malcolm X championed a new vision, reframing the character of the struggle for equality from civil rights to one of human rights. He also raised the concept of self-determination as essential to any struggle for equality. I want to use the lens of human rights and self-determination to contextualize gentrification and look for solutions to the nation’s housing crisis.
The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States.
What is gentrification? From the perspective of the community members, gentrification is the loss of community (and individual) control over the land they live on, a forced displacement of residents from their homes and their communities. It generally occurs in low-income neighborhoods in which people of color reside. Gentrification is not a haphazard process that happens by accident. It is systemic in nature and sanctioned by a faulty legal system.
Gentrification is not just a modern-day occurrence. The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States. In 1823, the US Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh legitimized the concept of ownership through conquest. In Johnson, the Court held that “savages” (the Court’s term for Native Americans) had no right to sell or control the land because the land was “discovered” by settlers. Only the US government could give Native people the right to sell or transfer the land.
The case is important to understanding gentrification because the Court declared that the indigenous population does not have any inherent right to determine the use of their land. In this case, the Court ruled that the colonization of the continent had in fact erased the slate and thus nullified any Native people’s claims to the land. It made the government the sole arbiter of sale or transfer of land. At the same time, it legitimized the government’s use of force to take over the continent and gain control of indigenous people’s land.
Furthermore, the Court’s opinion is indicative of the primary role that race plays in community development. The Court called indigenous people “savages.” Intrinsic in this name-calling is the idea that Native Americans are the “other” – that European culture is superior – and that as an inferior community, they could not possibly make good decisions as to how they use their land. This inherently wrong, racist decision enshrines the legal and conceptual basis of gentrification, or what I have called ownership through conquest.
Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers.”
If we look at what is happening today in major cities throughout the United States, the same principles and legal precepts are at work. Now, instead of military might, overpowering economic forces are pushing low-income people of color out of their neighborhoods and often out of the cities and into the suburbs. This is happening because public and private investments in the downtown business core have made these areas extremely important and valuable. As the core of the city expands, the neighborhoods that abut the downtown area and those along transportation lines leading to downtown have dramatically increased in value.
Investors and their partners in the public institutions have “discovered” these communities and swooped in to take control of abandoned and vacant properties, at first; but soon all properties in these neighborhoods become targets for takeover. The outside investors then develop the land to fit the needs of the downtown elite. They build new and high-cost apartments and high-rises and demolish and get rid of properties suitable for people of more modest means. Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers,” the same term used to refer to the initial invaders of North America who imposed the White man’s ways on the Native peoples.
This means families who have often lived in these neighborhoods for decades are forced to relocate. Tenants in particular, because of the lack of a secure tenure, face an onslaught of economic pressures to move. Outside investors will often close buildings and evict all the tenants as they develop properties to cater to wealthier non-community members in an effort to get them to move into the community. Tenants are then forced to find and move into an ever-shrinking supply of affordable housing.
At the same time, landlords are increasing the rent as the neighborhood becomes “hot.” In the end, the vast majority of the tenants will be forced out. It is beyond their means to resist these economic forces on their own. For instance, in Chicago, more than 50 percent of tenants are rent burdened, meaning more than one-third of their income goes to housing costs. Obviously, when tenants are barely able to pay rent, any changes in rent, job status or medical situations will result in displacement.
It is not only renters who face challenges. In the case of homeowners, many long-time residents are losing their properties to foreclosure or seeing dramatic increases in their property taxes, which once again force them out. The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.
The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.
Many of the same racist justifications for this conquest are still at play today. Gentrification is often explained away as a needed phenomenon. The community “needs” the often White and well-to-do invaders to move into the neighborhood to improve it. In other words, the current residents are not “invested” in the neighborhood, as they are “not good enough” to develop it on their own. The local culture is destroyed as new, wealthier people flood into a community. The newcomers take over all elements of the community, bringing in their own “superior” culture, such as more expensive restaurants and entertainment venues. This escalates and expands the dislocation to include existing businesses. It is all legal, built on decades of laws based on the rights of the powerful few and not on the human rights of the many.
It is for this reason that Malcolm X’s vision of moving toward a struggle for human rights is so important. Housing is a basic human necessity that any individual needs in order to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Without a home, it is next to impossible to find work, to educate your children and to better your conditions. Housing needs to be made into a human right, a right protected by law.
What would it mean if housing was a human right? It certainly means more than just ensuring a roof over one’s head. It means making sure that everyone has decent, safe and accessible housing. It is hardly a home if that home does not have heat during the winter, or is infested with mold and other pests. Housing needs to be affordable. If housing becomes so expensive that a person needs to decide whether to eat or pay the rent, then they will always be at risk of losing their housing. Housing also needs to be stable. People should be able to choose where they live. No one should be forced to move just because someone else wants to live there.
So, how can we change policies and begin moving toward a human rights framework based on community needs, as it relates to gentrification? To begin with, we could implement:
- Laws to end lockouts, self-help evictions outside of the legal system: No tenant or homeowner should lose their home without due process.
- Mandatory inspections laws: Municipalities and other government agencies need to be responsible for ensuring that all residential properties meet certain codes of health and safety.
- Just cause laws: A property owner should be required to have a justifiable reason to evict a resident. No one should have their tenure interrupted because of discrimination, retaliation or any other unfair reason.
- Laws to limit foreclosures: Banks and other agencies ought to be held accountable for their actions in creating the housing crisis.
- Property tax laws: Property tax laws should promote stability. Tie property taxes to the purchase price of buildings, which would help keep taxes affordable for long-term residents and in addition provide low-income residents with tax relief.
- Rent controls: This can take two forms. Rent increases could be regulated by law to give current tenants the opportunity to continue to live in their homes. Or secondly, current residents could receive a rental subsidy to make up for the increase in rent due to gentrification.
- Create community-based zoning boards: These boards can regulate zoning changes and give communities control over development.
- Create eviction-free zones: Activists and legal services providers work to prevent any eviction in these areas of gentrification to slow down the development process and challenge the investor-invaders’ assumption that they can do what they want.
All these potential policies and actions can begin to ameliorate the effects of gentrification and provide communities with a legal and moral basis to fight gentrification and promote housing stability. No one should be forced to move from their home against their will.
Adopting a human rights framework can provide individuals and communities with new tools and perspectives that offer the hope of ensuring that everyone has the right to secure safe, decent and accessible housing that is affordable. Defining housing as a human right allows for an expansive outlook that goes beyond viewing housing as merely a roof over one’s head or a commodity for sale. A human rights framework will benefit the majority and move society onto a path of social equity. As Malcolm X said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
John Bartlett is the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. John is a dedicated social justice advocate who has spent decades fighting to protect people’s homes and environment. John’s expertise and experience – from civil disobedience to landlord-tenant mediation – has proved irreplaceable in Chicago’s continued fight for affordable housing.
This article was originally published in TruthOut.
The story began when the landlord of their five-story building neglected basic repairs to the point of building deterioration: no heat, major security issues, and often no running water. This reached a peak in February, one of the coldest months on record in the city. On February 23rd, the landlord’s response to all of these problem was to send 30-day notices to the building’s residents. He said they had to be out by March 23rd. Four days later, the Courts ordered the residents out by March 9th, deeming the building a fire safety hazards because of its unreliable water supply.
From notice to final day, “the system” had given them just 14 days. With little to no money, and affordable housing scarcely available regardless of their means, residents were facing personal crisis. As Brown noted in his first column, “there has to be a better way.”
In the end, 75 tenants were dislocated. Some, but not all, have been able to find emergency housing — some in new “permanent” units, others staying with friends, many landing in homeless shelters. And in the end, more affordable housing in the city, has been eliminated, instead of being fixed and preserved. The current building inspection system is a complaint-based service provided by city inspectors. This means that tenants hold the burden of requesting proper maintenance, property owners can neglect buildings without regular code enforcement, and families are forced to relocate or live with egregious conditions affecting their health. In today’s economy, moving is not always a viable option.
The Metropolitan Tenants Organization believes that there is a better way to prevent emergency building closures. It’s called proactive rental inspection (PRI) programs. In essence, it means preventing the dilapidation of rental properties through routine code enforcement. Perhaps the residents of 7270 S. Shore Drive would not have to evacuate with one week’s notice if the owner of the building would have been required to maintain the building and make small repairs before they became too large to fix and too dangerous for the tenants.
We believe that the City should initiate a proactive inspection program that could identify home-based health hazards and require property owners to make the necessary repairs. Sign this petition calling on your Alderman to support the Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program!
Mark Brown columns:
A group of SRO tenants who probably couldn’t afford to buy a late-model Chevy if they pooled their money taught luxury auto dealer Joe Perillo a lesson Friday in Cook County Circuit Court.
In the process, they learned something about themselves. It was a beautiful thing to see.
The 15 or so tenants applauded spontaneously when Circuit Judge Edward Harmening ordered Perillo, owner of the Rosemoor Hotel, to pay each of them $3,000 to help them vacate the building on an emergency basis.
You’re not really supposed to applaud in court, and the judge looked a bit embarrassed, but he didn’t tell them to stop, sensitive perhaps to the fact he had contributed to their problem by ordering them out in the first place.
Harmening also appointed a receiver to help the tenants find somewhere to go and to assist them in moving, which will cost Perillo even more.
The reason I take satisfaction in that is for the past week Perillo’s management team at the single-room occupancy building at 1622 W. Jackson had tried to bluff and bulldoze the residents into leaving voluntarily.
They blamed the judge’s order to vacate by noon Thursday, glossing over the fact it was the result of a fire hazard created by Perillo trying to have it both ways — rehabbing the building with people still living there and paying rent.
Perillo’s guys didn’t back off until community organizers encouraged the tenants to stay put until compensated, and I wrote a column in Thursday’s paper about what was happening.
After that, the city began taking a more aggressive stance on the tenants’ behalf. Even then, however, somebody sent in a police officer overnight to try to scare them off, residents reported.
Then in court Friday, Perillo lawyer Arnold Landis tried to lowball the judge, offering to pay a maximum of only $500 to the tenants, instead of the $3,000 sought by the city, and arguing his team should be allowed to conduct the move without a receiver.
Harmening, having learned his own lesson after accepting Landis’ previous assurances management would work with the tenants, said he no longer had enough confidence to trust them with the responsibility.
So what was the lesson in this for Perillo, whose luxury auto group deals in Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Maserati?
“We’re dealing with people not cars.”
That was actually a line used in court by Judy Frydland, a lawyer for the city, after Landis used his negotiating ploy with the judge and ended up costing Perillo a lot more money than if he just treated the tenants fairly in the first place (though notably still not as much as it would cost to buy any one of his luxury automobiles.)
I knew the tenants were going to come out okay when I got to court and saw Frydland, a member of the A-team in the city corporation counsel’s office and someone with a history of fighting for people in these situations. Now, I can’t really explain why the city didn’t put up the same fight a week earlier, or why it took months for the city to realize ongoing rehab work at the hotel had created a fire danger or that the fire alarm was disconnected. But I don’t want to detract from a happy outcome.
And the tenants were, oh, so happy, as they celebrated in the hallway afterward, congratulating each other, and thanking everyone who had gone to bat for them.
It wasn’t just the money.
Forty-eight hours earlier, most of them were resigned to their fate, desperately looking for somewhere to move and unaware they might have any say in the matter. They didn’t even know each other by name.
But as I stood outside the Rosemoor on Wednesday with West Side activist Elce Redmond and organizers from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, I could see the idea start to take hold that they could stick up for themselves.
And outside the courtroom Friday, I saw it come to full fruition — a sudden sense of empowerment.
The lesson for the tenants?
“This is what happens when you work together.”
That’s what John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, told them, and they agreed.
“You know what. I’ll be able to sleep at night. I feel like I can walk away with my manhood,” said Roy Giddens, a Vietnam veteran and leader of the tenant group.
Many of the tenants, though, are still worried about finding a place to live by Wednesday, the new deadline set by the judge.
“I can’t live on the street. I’ve got oxygen at home,” fretted Karen Everett, 61, who would have been staying at the Rosemoor three years next month.
That’s why it’s so important to save what’s left of these SROs.
By Mark Brown. This article was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times
With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?
By: Megan Cottrell – Chicago Reader – October 31, 2012
Patricia Robinson recalls a time when she fondly watched her son, Michael, then a toddler, sit in the windowsill of her Englewood home, completely engrossed. Matchbox car in hand, he would run the toy back and forth over the brown painted surface, making little vrooms and beep-beeps as he played.
Ten years later, Robinson’s warmth for that moment has long faded. That was where it started—where she believes Michael ingested the lead-filled dust that poisoned him, leaving him with lifelong learning disabilities. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” Robinson says. “It’s taken over my life.”
Doctors, organic food, costly tutors, special ed teachers—Robinson has tried whatever she can to help her son get ahead, despite the difficulties he’s faced because of lead poisoning. But Michael’s struggles to learn, to pay attention in school, and to get along with other children continue.
While there’s no doubt that the number of children affected by lead poisoning has dropped precipitously since the 70s (when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline), Chicago has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the U.S.
A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests.
Lead paint, which was banned in 1978, is still present in thousands of older homes and apartment buildings across Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides, where the housing stock is older. And though lead hazards are clearly identifiable and inexpensive to eradicate, the city’s budget for lead-poisoning prevention has plummeted in recent years.
“Lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems that we know how to solve,” said Anita Weinberg, director of Lead Safe Housing Initiatives at Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University. “We can resolve this problem within a generation, but it’s not a priority for the city.”
As money has dried up, the burden to get the word out has fallen on parents like Robinson. She tells parents about the dangers of lead poisoning every day as she helps Englewood residents obtain health care access and child care through her work at Children’s Home and Aid.
“I try to warn them,” says Robinson, who figured out what happened to her son through bloodwork and environmental tests of their home. “I want to let them know so they won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”
How do kids become lead poisoned? It’s not usually from eating paint chips. Instead, lead is typically ingested as dust—dust that’s created when old windows and doors are opened and closed, scattering a fine layer of the invisible stuff on a home’s floors and walls. As is presumed to be the case with Michael, children get this dust on their hands, then put their hands in their mouths. It doesn’t take much: a sugar packet’s worth of lead dust scattered over an area the size of a football field is enough to poison a child.
Once lead is in the body, it crosses the blood-brain barrier and can settle in the bones. It disrupts normal brain function, making a child more likely to suffer from learning disabilities, antisocial tendencies, and even violent behavior.
It’s a problem Anne Evens first became aware of when she was working on improving housing on Chicago’s west side in the 80s.
“I was sort of struck by the fact that so many low-income families and building owners were stuck with this situation of having so much lead in the environment—this huge burden that caused children to get sick and building owners to be stuck with the cost of removing the lead,” Evens says.
The problem bothered her so much that she joined the Chicago Department of Public Health and started working as an epidemiologist in the department’s lead-poisoning-prevention program. A few years later, she became the program’s director. In her ten years with the department, she revolutionized the city’s efforts to combat lead, turning the program from a slow-going effort that only helped children after they had already been poisoned to a proactive movement that aimed to prevent poisoning in the first place. Evens helped file a class action lawsuit in 2002 against the paint industry—an effort that later failed—to get more money to remove lead from Chicago’s homes.
Evens felt that to attract the money and attention necessary to rid Chicago of lead hazards, someone needed to quantify how much damage was being done. So she left the health department and got her PhD in environmental health. Her dissertation project? The largest study ever done on how lead poisoning affects schoolchildren.
Evens was able to get the health department and the Chicago Public Schools to share data, and she analyzed the records of thousands of students who were in elementary school between 2003 and 2006, looking at their lead-poisoning test results and comparing those with their standardized test scores. With the wealth of data from the two departments, she could control for outside factors that might affect a child’s learning ability, including poverty, the mother’s education level, and birth weight.
In addition to finding that a child with even low levels of lead in his or her body was more likely to fail the third grade, she also determined that lead-poisoned children scored an average of six points lower on standardized tests—enough to make a difference between passing and failing.
“When you think about how many kids in the CPS school system are just barely passing with regards to meeting the standards, absolutely it makes a big difference,” Evens says. “It impacts a huge number of kids.”
Economist Richard Rothstein has described lead poisoning as the “low-hanging fruit” of education reform, saying it is one of many factors that contribute to the achievement gap between white and minority students. He says the public perception is that lead is no longer a problem, but that’s not the case when it comes to poor, minority neighborhoods.
“Throughout the country, low-income children have more lead exposure than middle-class children,” Rothstein says. “All children are less exposed to lead than they used to be, but the biggest declines have been for middle-class children.”
A further analysis of Evens’s data looked at the average blood lead level for each school in the Chicago Public Schools system. The most widely recognized standard for lead poisoning is ten micrograms per deciliter in a child’s blood. Recently the CDC lowered that standard to five micrograms per deciliter—what the agency refers to as the “level of concern.”
Taking an average of the third-graders’ blood lead levels for each school, the data showed that nearly 75 percent of schools have an average blood lead level over five. In the worst schools, average levels top ten, going as high as 16. Using this new CDC guideline, the number of children considered lead poisoned in Chicago jumped considerably—from one in 80 children to one in ten, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Emile Jorgensen, an epidemiologist with the Chicago Department of Public Health, says that number likely overestimates the amount of children with lead levels above five because of limited accuracy in lab results. He estimates that the number of children with lead rates five and above is more like one in 12.
“When you think about all the challenges that our kids have in terms of performing in school—poverty, gang violence, the list goes on and on—lead is something you can actually do something about and have an impact,” Evens says. “It just seems crazy, as a community that cares about school performance, not to invest in preventing it.”
In addition to being the largest study of its kind, Evens’s research points out that even very low levels of lead can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn.
Evens now works at CNT Energy, managing a program that replaces old windows to combat lead poisoning and increase energy efficiency. Since she left the health department in 2006, funding has fallen and inspectors have been laid off.
Says Evens: “As a city that has historically had so many lead-poisoned kids, to be substantially reducing efforts to fight it—that’s very worrisome.”
The corner of 69th street and Emerald in Englewood is occupied by two vacant lots, a small corner store, and a storefront office with boarded-up windows and a banner on the door that reads, “Imagine Englewood If . . .” As children file in for an after-school tutoring session, Joanna Brown locks the door after them. On the back of the door hangs a sign that reads, in scripted red marker, “Attention Children, do not open this door for anyone.”
If Chicago is the nation’s capital of lead poisoning, Englewood is its center square. In the 90s, the neighborhood had the highest lead-poisoning rates in the entire country.
“In poor neighborhoods, the lead just does not get cleaned up,” Brown says. “It’s in the soil, the windows, the floors, and the babies just walk through it.”
If Chicago is the nation’s capital of lead poisoning, Englewood is its center square. In the 90s, Englewood had the highest lead-poisoning rates in the country.
Brown sits at a long table, surrounded by the brightly decorated room, cubicles on one side and classroom-style setup on the other. She squints at her laptop, sending out e-mails about a meeting at the local school, Miles Davis Magnet Academy. Through a small grant from the Woods Foundation, Imagine Englewood If has been working to increase lead-poisoning awareness, talking to parents at local schools and encouraging local landlords to deal with lead hazards in their apartments.
“To me, it changes the whole conversation about why Johnny can’t read,” Brown says. “It’s no longer that he’s less able or less intelligent.”
Imagine Englewood If used to be able to administer lead tests to schoolchildren in the area, but the funding’s dried up. The group wants to petition Springfield for more funding and is hoping to develop legislation that would provide extra resources to communities like theirs.
Imagine Englewood If has gotten help from Loyola University’s child law program, which has also awarded a handful of small grants to aid efforts throughout the city to educate families about the dangers of lead. It’s not enough, says Loyola’s Weinberg. While making families aware of the lead is a start, the problem is too large to be taken on by the individual.
Weinberg points to potential legislation being drafted by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, an advocacy group for renters’ rights, that would require every apartment in the city to be inspected every few years, not just when a child is found to be lead poisoned.
“Right now, it doesn’t come to the city’s attention unless the child has already been poisoned,” Weinberg says. “We want to prevent the child from becoming sick.”
John Bartlett, director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, says they’re working on the ordinance. So far they’ve met with several aldermen, but none has signed on as a sponsor.
Chicago doesn’t directly spend a dime on lead-poisoning prevention. The lead-poisoning-prevention department is funded through grants from outside organizations: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Illinois Department of Public Health, Cook County, and until recently, the CDC. From 2008 to 2011, the CDC gave the department nearly $5 million, but that ended in 2012, when the CDC’s national budget for lead-poisoning prevention was cut from $30 million to $2 million.
Dr. Cortland Lohff, director of Chicago’s lead-poisoning-prevention program, says the department was forced to eliminate some inspector positions and use those funds to support other nursing and administrative positions. He says a new, smaller grant from the Cook County Department of Public Health will help rehab 300 homes over the next three years and remove lead hazards.
So what does the city spend the rest of the grant money on? It’s not entirely clear. Although the 2012 city budget details what the department intends to spend in specific categories—inspectors, testing, epidemiologists, even office supplies—CDPH was unable to provide detailed numbers for previous years. Efrat Stein, a former department spokesperson, said those records were “not readily available,” and was unaware if the program spent every dollar collected on lead abatement. Quenjana Adams, the department’s current spokesperson, did not provide further information.
Lohff points to the department’s successes, saying the number of children found to have suffered lead poisoning has vastly decreased over the last decade. But the city mainly focuses on children with higher levels of lead: ten and above.
“The numbers of kids who have been lead poisoned have certainly come down, but when we start recognizing the dangers to kids at lower levels, those numbers are way up there still,” says Weinberg.
“All of my kids are different, but he was so different. It took a lot of one-on-one time.”—Kindergarten teacher Dorothea Lane
By law, a building owner has to safely get rid of a lead hazard once it’s identified, but Weinberg says this doesn’t always happen. When a hazard isn’t taken care of, the city pursues the property owner, filing a case with administrative hearings and escalating it to housing court if the hazard isn’t taken care of. The entire process takes months, sometimes years. This year alone, the city has filed 114 cases in housing court over lead hazards that still haven’t been abated.
In many households with toxic lead levels, families are often struggling to keep the lights on or put food on the table, says Judy Frydland, a city attorney who supervises lead cases in housing court. Frydland says her attorneys make sure lead hazards are cleaned up. She also says that, compared to the homeowners’ other struggles, the threat of lead can seem distant and vague.
“I remember handling cases saying to people, ‘You are hurting your own child,'” Frydland says. “But the population you’re dealing with has so many other problems.”
Nicholson Elementary kindergarten teacher Dorethea Lane first became aware of lead poisoning when a five-year-old boy named Michael ended up in her class. She had 32 kids in her classroom that year and the extra attention and help Michael needed was daunting. Lead poisoning had delayed his speech, he couldn’t focus, and he didn’t work well with the other children.
“All of my kids are different, but he was so different,” Lane says. “The other kids were affected by his behavior. It took a lot of one-on-one time.”
She could see that Michael was bright, but he couldn’t communicate or finish a task. When she noticed that he could calm down if he had something to do with his hands, she brought in Legos for him to build with. He loved learning about the solar system and astronauts, so she would find books, pictures, and computer games about space to help him.
Lane says no one—not teachers, principals, social workers, nor counselors—considers lead poisoning when trying to figure out what’s preventing a “low-performing” child from learning. She says lead poisoning has never been a part of her teacher training or professional development with the Chicago Public Schools.
“We as educators should know more about it,” she says
Michael’s progress has pushed Lane to learn more about how lead could be affecting her students. Ten years later, Michael has a larger vocabulary and no longer needs speech therapy. He still struggles with reading comprehension, but he excels in math. His attention span is getting better.
Lane says that if teachers knew more about what lead does to the brain and how it was affecting kids in their classrooms, more could be done to help them. But there’s currently no coordinated effort between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health to inform teachers or parents about the dangers of lead poisoning.
CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler says the school system tries to encourage students to get tested for lead poisoning, as required by law, before they start school, and works to connect students who have lead poisoning to medical help and special education.
But according to city data, less than half of Chicago’s kids have been tested for lead. In some neighborhoods, the testing rate is as low as 13 percent.
Ziegler says CPS works with supporting organizations to address the issue of lead poisoning, but did not give names of any specific organizations or programs the district is involved in.
Officials at CPS received Evens’s study, but had no official response. Ziegler notes that the district’s leadership has changed since the study was released.
Patricia Robinson, Michael’s mother, believes that officials don’t care because the kids who are affected live in neighborhoods like Englewood, not where their own children live and go to school.
“If it’s not in your family, if it’s not in your area, why should you care about it?” she says. “It’s not a concern for you.”
She blames herself, too, for what she wishes she’d noticed a decade ago, when her little boy sat playing in the windowsill.
“Why didn’t I know?” she says. “I should have known—but word don’t get out, so you don’t know.”
Riley checked with other tenants in the building and found that everyone who was being asked to leave had one thing in common: they all paid their rent through a housing choice voucher.
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