Support the Just Housing Amendment

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.09.04 AMOne out of every three Americans has an arrest record. Nearly 50% of children have a parent with a criminal record. Housing policies that ban people with records disproportionately affects people of color and people with disabilities.

The Just Housing Amendment will ban discrimination in real estate transactions based on one’s covered criminal history, help reduce recidivism and make Cook County a safe place, as well as protect children and families from the consequences of housing instability. People re-entering their communities with access to stable housing are seven times less likely to recividate than those facing homelessness.

Home is the cornerstone from which people build better lives for themselves and their families. People with criminal records, like everyone else, deserve a place to call home. Housing is a right!

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Malcolm X, Gentrification and Housing as a Human Right

A girl walks by a mural featuring Malcolm X in NYC.

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.”


Author John Bartlett

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.

Healthy Homes Mean Health Equity – A Message from the Executive Director

I just returned from the National Healthy Homes Conference as well as the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative meeting in Denver.  The meetings reaffirm MTO’s commitment to involve ourselves and help shape the agenda of this growing movement.  Some of the thoughts that I took away from the meeting are as follows.

This movement calls upon us to think differently and to look at the broader picture.  It challenges organizations and governmental agencies to get out of their silos and to become “yes we can” facilitators.  For instance, one agency described a scenario where a home owner had dangerous lead hazards in their home.   The house also had a leaky roof.  Because of funding restrictions, the agency had to tell the resident that before the lead hazard could be abated the roof needed to be fixed.  Under a green and healthy approach, an agency would look to use green and energy efficiency resources to repair the roof and simultaneously abate the lead.  A contractor would be resolving several issues at one time.  This is efficient and in the long run, saves money.

Another part of looking at the broader picture means collaborating with other groups.  Collaborations allow agencies to bring together specialized skills and focus on solving larger problems.  Strong partnerships build connections between issues, increase resources, and create a vision for solving the nation’s larger housing problems.

A few statistics demonstrate the need for a Healthy Homes approach.   According the World Health Organization two-thirds of all deaths are caused by non-communicable diseases and 25% can be addressed environmentally.  The other important fact is that between 18% and 30 % of green house gases are the result of residential housing.  Making our homes greener can have a huge impact on the environment.

The biggest challenge facing us in this effort is financing.  In its budget cutting craze, the federal government is looking to cut its investments in healthy homes.  Conference participants suggested looking to Medicaid and insurance companies for financing because if we can prevent these home based illnesses in the long run it will create huge cost savings for these institutions.  Most everyone agreed that in the end, the federal government must take a leading role in financing these changes.

Finally, for me the biggest reason to support a green and healthy homes framework is that it promotes health equity.  Promoting wellness is far more cost effective that treating illness.  If we look at who is living in housing which is poorly maintained, in bad neighborhoods that often contain health hazards, we will see it is low-come families, often times families of color.   It is the same population which disproportionately suffers from such environmentally related health issues such as lead poisoning and asthma. By making our homes greener and healthier, we will improve everyone’s health and thus in the end it will raise the quality of life for everyone.

Condo Conversion: Action Update


On Tuesday, April 19th, the Mayor’s Condo Conversion Task Force met to discuss proposed changes to their report in the latest episode in the now five-year long battle for an ordinance to protect renters and condo buyers during condo conversions.

The Task Force is proposing to change the notification period from 120 days to 180 days.  For seniors and those people with disabilities, notification would change from 180 to 210 days.  The Task Force also recommends that low and moderate income renters receive relocation assistance.  The assistance equals the larger of one month’s rent or $1,500 up to a maximum of $2,500.  City officials are still discussing how they will identify renters who qualify for this assistance.

The bill has been close to passing before and we are hopeful it will pass on Mayor Daley’s final City Council meeting.  Significant progress has been made; however, there are still obstacles ahead.  The next hurdle to clear is for the Housing Committee of the City Council to approve the bill.  The Housing Committee’s meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 3rd, at 10:30am in room 200. MTO is encouraging all renters who have experienced displacement due to condo conversion to attend and testify.

MTO has been working on condo conversion since 2006.  In 2006, renters marched through the Hyde Park neighborhood demanding justice for those being displaced by rampant condo conversion.  In response, the Mayor convened the Condo Conversion Task Force; however, it failed to meet for a year.  Following another demonstration led by MTO, this time at City Hall, the Committee held its first meeting.  MTO was able to win a seat for a renter on the committee and has continued to monitor its work.

While there have been many ups and downs, a hopeful conclusion to years of struggle is close at hand.  All those interested in attending the meeting of the Housing Committee on May 3rd to testify about their experiences should contact Shirley Johnson at 773.292.4980 ext. 224.

The Poor Fight Back!

Originally posted on

On Friday evening February 25th, 400 people, mostly low-income tenants, braved a chilly winter day to take to the streets in Chicago to stand up against the proposed Republican budget cuts. The cuts would decimate many of the nation’s affordable housing programs. Initiated by the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of organizations focused on preserving subsidized housing, the demonstration included acts of civil disobedience. Although many of the organizations had never previously engaged in civil disobedience, the Coalition felt that the situation is so dire that we have to take stronger action. Eleven people blocked a main downtown street to send a message that low-income and working families are ready to fight.

People came to the demonstration to tell elected representatives that the economic crisis is not over for the majority of people living in this country. Rents are too high. Foreclosures have not slowed down. Millions are still looking for work or working at jobs that don’t pay enough. So many people are struggling just to survive and to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families. Ms. Adrena Townsend, one of the protestors, said, “I came here because I cannot tighten my belt any more. I cannot do without my home. The House’s proposed cuts are aimed at basic human needs such as housing, food, education, and health care. These are not extra trimmings, they are basic necessities.”

Just before it left for its February recess, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to slash $61 billion from the current federal budget. They want to cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by 66%. The program provides people with money to pay for heat in the winter. Are these lawmakers willing to turn down or turn off their heat to cut the deficit? They want to cut Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program by 10 %. This program helps pregnant women, new mothers and young children eat well. The House’s spending bill would discontinue housing assistance for homeless veterans and cut housing subsidies, job programs and more. In addition the House wants to cut programs like the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) that fund the agencies that provide necessities such as rental subsidies and energy assistance. These cuts are direct hits to “human services” programs the help meet the basic needs of so many.

The government may need to make cuts, but who decides what to cut? On February 11, 2011 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) promised that budget cuts will be historic. The Republican controlled House proposed cutting the Housing and Urban Development’s $43.5 billion 2011 budget by over 21%. Yet on February 24th we learned that the Air Force is awarding Boeing a $35 billion contract to build air tankers. Why do the House’s proposed cuts almost solely target human need programs? Why is it that Congress does not ask working families what is most important to them?

During the demonstration, protestors chanted, “Tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the poor, we can see who you’re for and we won’t take it anymore,” a slogan that highlights a very real division in this country. One aspect of this division is defining the role of government. The Tea Partiers and their (billionaire) backers want people to think that government is too big and business can handle things on its own without any government interference. According to Herman Bonner, a subsidized tenant and protestor at Friday’s demonstration, “I believe the role of government is to ensure that the basic needs of everyone are met and that people have a voice in how this is done.”

How you view the government and its role shapes what you think causes the crisis facing this country. For those Tea Party budget cutters in Washington the crisis facing our country is the huge deficit. If nothing is done about the deficit then the country will fall into default and decay. Yet less than two months ago those same representatives voted to cut the taxes on the rich. These cuts were pushed through in the face of growing evidence that wealth disparity in this country has reached epidemic proportions. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealthiest 1 % of the population owns 33 % of all the wealth and the top 10 % own over 70 % of all the wealth. The last time there was such inequality was the 1920’s just before the depression. Rather than ask the rich to pay their fair share, the Tea Party plans to cut the deficit and to do it on the backs of the poor.

For millions of Americans, the day to day struggle to maintain food on the table and a roof over one’s head defines the crisis. For many families, the economy is stuck in a depression. They worry whether they will have a job next week or next year and what will happen if they don’t. Young and old alike worry about social security benefits and retirement. They are afraid that the government will abandon any commitment to help and that they will be left to fend for themselves. They don’t expect handouts but they do expect – and deserve – support.

The tenant representatives who blocked traffic on Friday are the beginning signs of a budding movement to demand economic justice. This brewing discontent can also be seen in Madison, Wisconsin where union workers are battling for their right to collective bargaining. There will be more protests as people are asked to “compromise” and to forgo basic necessities. In January, the wealthy won their tax cuts and now they want more. It is in this context that the tenants took to the street chanting “They say cut backs and we say fight back.” It is for this reason that people need to unite and fight the draconian cuts to human services that are happening across the country on the local, state, and federal level.

-John Bartlett

Major Protest Friday Against Devastating Budget Cuts

Not on Our Backs: Stop the Slash-and-Burn Budget Cuts to HUD

Friday, February 25th
4pm – Teach In and Testimonies; 77 W. Washington – The Chicago Temple
4:45pm – March and Rally at the Thompson Center; 100 W. Randolph – Corner of Randolph and Clark

23.8% cuts to HUD’s budget will devastate Illinois communities

Just a few of the specifics include…

  • 67% – 70% cuts to Housing for the Elderly & Disabled

  • Over $78.3 Million will be cut from IL’s public housing budget, leading to unsafe conditions & continued demolitions while over 118,000 families languish on IL public housing and voucher waiting lists
  • Additionally, LIHEAP is being slashed 66% and WIC is being cut 10%
  • Funding for Community Health Centers is cut 46%

We need you to come out and make your voices heard! RSVP to Sara Mathers at 773.292.4980 x 240 or by email at

Sponsored by the Chicago Housing Initiative, Kenwood Oakland Community Organizations,  Jane Addams Senior Caucus,  Logan Square Neighborhood Association,  Lakeview Action Coalition, Metropolitan Tenants Organization,  O.N.E.,  Southside Together Organizing for Power

Co-Sponsoring Organizations:  Access Living,  Action NOW,  Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance,  Bickerdike,  Chicago Coalition for the Homeless,  Coalition to Protest Public Housing,  Housing Action Illinois,  Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs,  Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and growing.

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

PHOTOS: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Chicago Rental Housing

Chicago’s current 311-reporting process does not work to protect renters against their slumlords. A mandatory rental housing inspection program with strong enforcement power is imperative for Chicago and the health of its communities. Below is a brief photographic summary of the conditions MTO witnesses on a regular basis.

Low-income renters experience higher rates of disease than their higher income counterparts. In my work as a healthy homes organizer, it has become strikingly clear why.

We have entered hundreds of apartments over the past few years and in them,  seen deplorable housing conditions that were the direct cause of a child’s disease which brought us to that apartment in the first place. For some unconscionable reason, the landlord chose not to invest the money needed to maintain the apartments in a livable condition and the city was often unresponsive to calls for help from the parents of these sick children.

Because of decades of activism, the City of Chicago has set up a system that is helpful to parents whose children have been lead poisoned. But – children are still the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ in the vast majority of cases. There is no program in place to prevent kids from lead poisoning and in particular, the most vulnerable children suffer.

There are even fewer controls in place for other healthy homes issues such as cockroach and rodent infestations, and mold problems. As of right now, there is little help in place for renters enduring unhealthy housing and absentee landlords. These conditions can be particularly harmful to children with asthma and other respiratory ailments. In most cases, especially in today’s economy, parents do not have the option to pick up and move. Instead, they make the difficult choice of having a roof over their family’s head or watching their kids suffer from their illnesses that are exacerbated right in their own home.

There needs to be programs with strong enforcement mechanisms for these families to turn to in order to correct these grossly negligent – and sometimes criminal – building code violations. Children living in unhealthy housing will suffer the effects of environmental injustice for the rest of their lives. This fact has been repeatedly proven and documented in numerous medical and public health academic journals. A recent Shriver Center report demonstrates how socioeconomically-integrated, safe, affordable housing offers children access to good schools, stability, and the health necessary to achieve their potential.

MTO is calling on Chicagoans to support a mandatory inspection program that would identify healthy homes issues and force landlords to maintain their buildings according to the Chicago building code requirements.

Sign the CHHIP Petition


If you are having Healthy Homes issues in your apartment, contact MTO’s Hotline for assistance at 773-292-4988, or notify your landlord directly online at Squared Away Chicago.  

If you would like to join the CHHIP campaign, contact Sheila at 773-292-4980 ext 231, or via email at

Warning: Some of the following photos are graphic and may be disturbing for sensitive viewers.



Is Housing a Human Right?

I recently attended a symposium “Bring Human Rights to Legal Services.”  The bulk of the discussions between Legal Aid attorneys and housing advocates were around how to bring a human rights framework to our work of supporting people living in poverty.  The symposium ended up raising more questions than answers.  To begin with, is housing a human right?  And if so, what does that mean?   MTO’s Hotline hears from hundreds of tenants every year who are getting evicted because they cannot afford to pay the rent.  They may have lost their job, had unforeseen medical expenses or because of the severe shortage of affordable housing, they end up taking a place they cannot afford and eventually are unable to pay the rent.  If housing is a human right, then what should happen to people who are denied that right?  The question can get more complex; what about the renter who tries to scam the system and live rent free for months, or the drug dealer who brings violence into our neighborhoods?  How would a right to housing affect them?  Are there responsibilities that come with rights and what are those responsibilities?

The right to housing also raises a more central question: just what is housing?  For example due to the earthquake in Haiti, many people are living in tents.  Would a tent be considered housing?  What about having heat in the winter?  Should there be some sort of guarantee that housing is heated in the winter? What about air conditioning in the summer if you are a senior citizen with a heart condition?  Is a homeless shelter considered housing?

What about the rights of landlords?  Should they have to absorb the cost if their tenant cannot afford the rent?  Let’s look at the bed bug crisis.  It can cost thousands of dollars to safely exterminate the pests.  Who should bear the cost?  These are just of few of the questions that come to mind.  MTO would like to hear from you.  Is housing a human right and what does that mean?

– John Bartlett

Condo Conversion Ordinance Hits Snag in City Council

Condo Conversion Ordinance Passes Housing Committee on Way to Becoming Law

Update from the Chicago Tribune:

Mayor Richard Daley today angrily rebuked real estate groups that he said helped stop his plan to protect renters whose buildings are converted to condominiums.

Daley’s renter protection proposal failed to get a vote from the City Council, which sent the package back to committee for further consideration.

Read more at the Chicago Tribune’s Clout Street

After years of advocating for changes renters and condo buyers are on the verge of winning significant rights when an apartment building is converted to condominiums.

MTO tenant leaders have played an important part in getting the ordinance before the city council.  MTO began its condo conversion campaign in 2005 when large number of tenants began calling the Hotline.  Many tenants were receiving 30-day notices of termination of tenancy in violation of the Chicago Condo Ordinance requiring a 120-day notification when a landlord is converting a building.  Unscrupulous developers take advantage of loopholes in state and city laws to do “stealth” condo conversions.

MTO brought tenants and community residents together to confront the problem.  A  march and rally was held on September 30th , 2006. A demand was made for public officials to address the dilemma renters are put in when developers attempt stealth conversion. Ald. Preckwinkle and Ald. Hairston attended the rally. The rally caused the Mayor to convene the Mayor’s Condominium Conversion Task Force on October 23rd 2006 to address the issue. Although the Task Force was formed they would not hold a meeting for almost a year.

In September 2007 MTO along with tenants and organizations from across the City held an action in front of City Hall to demand that the Mayor’s Task Force on Condo Conversion meet. The action led the Task Force to begin holding regular meetings.  MTO leaders attended every meeting and testified to the need for a renter to be appointed to the Task Force.  After months of work, tenant leader, Elizabeth Todd, was asked to join the Task Force to address the needs of renters. The new ordinance is a result of their recommendations of the Mayors Task Force on Condo Conversion and the input of tenant leaders from across the city working with MTO.

The ordinance increases the time of tenants to be notified from 4 to 9 months. It requires relocation assistance of $1,500 to renters being displaced. The ordinance also establishes a Condominium Registration Program for new and converted condos.

We at MTO would like to thank the Mayor, Task Force chairman, Alderman Ray Suarez, all the members of the Task Force and the hundreds of tenants who worked hard to pass this ordinance.