TOP STORIES She has been waiting for housing assistance for 29...

She has been waiting for housing assistance for 29 years. Now she’s fighting for change


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Left: Janette Taylor, her mother and her youngest child in 2006. Right: Taylor, her five children and her granddaughter after she became head girl in 2019.

Jeanette Taylor

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Jeanette Taylor

Left: Janette Taylor, her mother and her youngest child in 2006. Right: Taylor, her five children and her granddaughter after she became head girl in 2019.

Jeanette Taylor

Janette Taylor was a single mother who wanted 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 thought of affording her own place in 1993, when she had three children, was almost out of the question. She contacted the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) for help.

It took Taylor 29 years to reach the top of the CHA list after finding the system was not doing its job and not helping its residents.

Taylor, who is now a mother of five at 47, is in a very different position in 2022 than she was when she applied. After decades of working for a community organization, she became a Chicago Warden, taking office in 2019. Only recently has her financial situation become more stable so that she can pay market rents due to her position in the government.

Taylor told NPR that while she can afford the rent now, that wasn’t always the case.

“I don’t pay for gas between September and April to give my kids what they need,” Taylor said. “Additional t-shirts, sneakers, boots, coats – the kids grow up. I’m in a system where I’m forced to choose.”

Janet Taylor and her three older children.

Jeanette Taylor

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Jeanette Taylor

Janet Taylor and her three older children.

Jeanette Taylor

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

She received a call about her application in 2004. What should have been a relief came with a serious caveat: her son, fresh out of high school, couldn’t live with her.

Faced with the choice of making her child homeless or risking eviction, Taylor at the time was unable to pursue the housing option.

“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, she received calls every two or three years asking if she would like to stay in the system, she said. She always kept her information up to date, knowing that a rent increase or a personal emergency could put her family in unsafe housing at any time.

Since the protracted state aid program could not help her, she had one saving grace: her mother.

Jeanette Taylor, her mother and her youngest child in 2006.

Jeanette Taylor

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Jeanette Taylor

Without her mother, she would have been left homeless, moved through the orphanage system, or expelled from Chicago altogether. Taylor considered moving to another city in search of affordable housing. But there was no way she was going to leave her mother, who was firmly rooted in Chicago.

“I had no intention of leaving my mother,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t under any circumstances. First of all, she was my insurance, 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 shows how the system works.

Don Washington, chief executive of the Chicago Housing Initiative, says the system is working as intended, which means it’s not helping a lot of people.

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

The CHA 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 several different waiting lists. It administers public housing, housing choice vouchers (sometimes referred to as Section 8), and project-based vouchers. People will give about 30% of their income to rent, and CHA will pay the rest.

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

CHA says public housing waitlists and project-based vouchers are always open. However, waiting times “range from 6 months to 25 years” depending on availability and specific needs.

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

New vouchers become available to families on the waiting list only after the existing voucher is no longer used. According to CHA, an average of 2,400 families leave the program each year.

How did Chicago come about?

There are many factors at play in the public housing crisis that Chicago is facing. A shortage of public housing, long wait times on waiting lists, and the ineffectiveness of housing voucher programs mean many families are stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

“Officially they will tell you that the waiting list, the waiting period for most people is 4.3 years,” Washington said. “But, oddly enough, I make a living doing this right now. I know, I personally know hundreds of people who are on this waiting list. I don’t know anyone who has been on this waiting list for less than 10 years.”

In 1999, the city launched Transformation Planresulting in a net loss of 25,000 affordable housing units. The goal was to relocate residents to mixed-use buildings and renovate the remaining apartments. This plan was to end in 2010. However, the system did not work as intended and contributed to the housing crisis, experts say.

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

“Families like Alderwoman Taylor and many, many others throughout the city have been on these waiting lists for years, partly due to the loss of public housing, the CHA’s inability year after year to address vacancy problems in some developments.” Walz told NPR.

In addition to a limited number of housing selection vouchers, community development corporations maintain their own waiting lists for certain projects. These listings are different for each building and are specific to a certain area. The decentralized and inefficient nature of the system has resulted in many vacant apartments not being allocated to people in need of housing.

Searching of decisions

One of the problems that activists are working to solve is housing vacancy.

Working with community organizations, Taylor developed a regulation, currently in the legislative cycle, that mandates updates to the system. These updates include the creation of a central registry to better match those in need of affordable housing with affordable units, Washington explained.

“We have a responsibility not only as elected officials, but as people who have the right to do right by the people we are paid to represent. Dot. So I don’t care if you’re the clerk who answers the phone. our duty is to help people,” Taylor said.

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

Initially hesitant to go public with her housing story, Taylor felt it was important to speak up for people who get fired frequently.

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

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