Law

Chicago Residents Sue to Save Section 8 Housing

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Millions of low-income Americans look to the federal government for help in finding affordable housing, but units under one subsidy program are fast disappearing. Some subsidized housing residents in Chicago are fighting to keep their homes in the program by taking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to court.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, where Hollywood reaps its biggest profits.

But first, the federal housing program known as Section 8 has helped millions of low-income Americans pay rent. Some tenants receive vouchers and get to choose where they live. Other subsidies are tied to specific apartment buildings. And as the housing market has boomed, those types of units are fast disappearing. In Chicago, one group of tenants has gone to court in hopes of forcing the government to keep their homes in the Section 8 program. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

The affordable housing program in dispute has one of those government names that doesn't elicit much excitement, but for people who don't make much money, project-based Section 8 is a godsend. Lynne Scott, a school bus driver, moved into her apartment 17 years ago.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. LYNNE SCOTT (Section 8 Recipient): When I started off living here I paid $26 a month for rent, and I was on aid at the time. So in the meantime I got a job and I started to work. So each year that I worked, my rent went up.

CORLEY: On Scott's living room walls, there are pictures of her family: her mother, her late husband, her three grown children, and a youthful picture of herself when she was a teen-ager. Scott is 50 and is now raising her six-year-old grandson. She makes about $15,000 a year and, although, she doesn't like to say, she pays nearly $500 a month in rent.

Ms. SCOTT: So it's no longer $26, which I wish. So, I can pay my light, gas and live comfortably in this apartment.

CORLEY: But Scott may soon have to move, and she could end up paying much higher rent since the government subsidy is tied to the building. Housing figures from HUD show project-based Section 8 is on the decline. More than 200,000 properties have been lost since the mid-1990s. In some instances, landlords opt out of the program when their contracts expire. They can make more money charging higher rents or converting apartments to condos. Sometimes the US Department of Housing, or HUD, forecloses on property that is delinquent and dilapidated and drops it from the program. Lynne Scott says there's no question that her building is in bad shape, and she points out problems in the hallway.

Ms. SCOTT: You see right there. See the red holes? And the stairs when you go down--you step down the stairs, you hear the stairs sink where it's going to give in eventually.

CORLEY: The owners of the development signed a contract with HUD in the 1980s making Lawndale Restoration, with its 100 buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood, the largest privately owned subsidized development in Chicago. HUD began foreclosing on it after the owners fell hundreds of thousands of dollars behind on loan payments. Now the agency and the city of Chicago are working to split the property up and find new owners. HUD's deputy chief of staff, Scott Keller, says after the apartments are rehabbed, the rent will still be affordable.

Mr. SCOTT KELLER (Deputy Chief of Staff, Department of Housing): There's a restriction on that property. It can't go out there and become yuppie lofts.

CORLEY: But neither will the Lawndale restoration property retain its project-based Section 8 status. Under HUD's plan, residents like Lynne Scott will be given vouchers allowing them to move elsewhere or back into restored Lawndale properties at a later date. Keller says HUD has fostered that type of change in other cities.

Mr. KELLER: I mean this is a project where this property is now going to be transformed and changed through the involvement of the community.

CORLEY: While Lynne Scott and other residents say they welcome a desperately needed rehab, they also argue HUD's actions are illegal.

Ms. SCOTT: We must stand together and fight!

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORLEY: Scott was one of the lead speakers at a recent rally outside of HUD's regional office in Chicago. The protesters have filed a lawsuit seeking to keep the project-based subsidy intact. It also would stop HUD from giving Lawndale tenants vouchers to look for other housing.

Ms. SCOTT: We have heard the horror stories of people who get their vouchers and then lost them, and now are faced with the dilemma of paying rent or feeding their families.

Unidentified Woman: We don't want it!

CORLEY: Standing near the protesters, attorney Kate Walz with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law charged that HUD's practice violates several of its own rules. For instance, Walz says, HUD is supposed to offer the same level of project-based assistance after a foreclosure.

Ms. KATE WALZ (Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law): They actually have to look at the market and see: Is there enough affordable housing for these very low-income families in the market? They haven't done it. They haven't even initiated a study to make that sort of consideration.

CORLEY: HUD has asked the court to throw out the Lawndale lawsuit, but Lynne Scott and the other tenants say they can't afford to lose another development, and they say the fight is not only for them but for low-income residents everywhere who need an affordable place to live in a neighborhood that's finally starting to change for the better. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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