Housing options expand for low-income renters in Cook County

Ciara McCarthy, Assistant City Editor

Hundreds of low-income renters in Evanston will have expanded housing options starting in August, thanks to the passage of an ordinance by the Cook County Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

The ordinance prohibits landlords from discriminating against holders of housing choice vouchers, which activists say has been common practice in suburban Cook County. Evanston’s Housing and Homelessness Commission discussed drafting and passing a similar ordinance at its meeting Friday.

The passage of the county ordinance concludes a 15-year struggle on the part of activists in Cook County. Chicago has had a similar ordinance in effect since 1998, but most renters in suburban Cook County have been without the protection until now.

Gail Schechter,  executive director of the housing nonprofit Open Communities, said the type of discrimination the ordinance prohibits is “very common” in communities like Evanston, where she estimated about 500 people use vouchers to pay for housing.

“It’s common practice that landlords in the suburbs have just said no to voucher holders,” she said.

Housing choice vouchers subsidize housing costs for eligible candidates. Qualified renters pay 30 percent of their income to the landlord, and the Housing Authority fills in the rest.

In the past, landlords discriminated against voucher holders and claimed it was because the Housing Authority was late on payments and inspections, Schechter said.

Schechter said some of these complaints were smokescreens for discrimination based on race, ability status and single-parenthood.

The push for this ordinance has been ongoing in Evanston for many years. Landlords managed to shoot down such an amendment before it reached City Council in 2002, Schechter said. Commissioner Larry Suffredin represents the 13th district, which includes Evanston, and co-sponsored the ordinance. He said he had been fighting a 12-year battle to get it passed.

Suffredin called housing choice vouchers “the main federal housing program.”

“If people could discriminate against it, the majority of Cook County couldn’t participate in the most successful housing program offered,” he said.

The ordinance will not increase the availability of affordable housing in Evanston, but it will allow lower-income renters to move to areas that do not have affordable housing, Schechter said. She added that the ordinance will hopefully decrease the concentration of low-income renters in certain neighborhoods and will expand housing options for many.

“It just means you give them the same chance you give everybody else,” she said. “The lesson can be boiled down to one sentence: Treat everyone the same.”