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An Open Letter to Governor Quinn

Governor Quinn, please follow through on the spirit of the state's Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act and meet the human need for housing and community.

An Open Letter to Governor Quinn

There comes a point when faced with human misery in all its forms – lack of food, lack of shelter, poor health, ignorance, isolation, violence, hate – that one is tempted to bundle it all into one Abstraction of Hopelessness and walk away from it.  We are tempted to declare it is not our problem or that the substantial responsibility for addressing it lies with the sufferer.

And so it goes that the grandfather making due within a fixed budget, the young woman starting out her professional life with a mountain of student debt, the divorced mother juggling child pick-up schedules with two part-time jobs and English language classes, or the man with a mental illness depending on frail parents, internalize that expectation by doing the best they can and seeking no favors.  They navigate traffic or long train rides; live next door to neighbors they never have time to visit; skimp on meals; and collapse at night in near catatonic exhaustion while depending on self-motivated children to do their homework. 

We live these lives or know others who do.  And what of it?  Aren’t these people simply exercising their freedom?  Do we too suffer when they suffer? 

Even if we reject an ethic of mutual responsibility on an ideological basis, we have an innate will to compassion.  Michael Ignatieff says in The Needs of Strangers that there is a “human capacity to feel needs for others.”  Few people today exercise that capacity for the stranger.  Nonetheless, we feel it.

Whether we sympathize with the Tea Party or with Occupy Wall Street, we are converging on the need for solidarity with others.  This manifests itself in the torrent of personal stories people post on sites like We Are the 99 Percent.  We want to be seen and heard.

It is within this context that I reflect on housing.  The state of Illinois has required all its towns to provide affordable housing for the last eight years.  But with few exceptions, municipalities have done nothing.  Moreover since this law was written, hundreds of thousands of homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure, victims of predatory lenders, “exotic” loan products, and unemployment.  An estimated 40% of renters have had the rug pulled out from under them as well, living in foreclosed buildings.  Although the mortgage crisis is global in scope, it is fueled by our society’s treatment of housing as a commodity.  In this atomized reality, a home is not where we raise families, or building blocks of a community, but an asset that can be turned into cash.

Far from allowing us to “feel needs for others,” under our system of housing as an investment the sight of a low-income worker in uniform or a lonely retiree provokes a feeling of “there goes my property values.”

In 2004, thanks to the hard work of advocates, Illinois enacted an Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, which is supposed to “encourage” municipalities to “meet the needs of their community” and “assure the health, safety, and welfare of all citizens of the State” by having at least 10% of their housing stock be “affordable.”  To be “affordable,” the housing must be means within the means of households between 60% and 80% of the median income of the metropolitan area, which in the Chicago area is between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. 

But it is a compromised law that favors municipal housing “plans” over their implementation.  It passively relies on the initiative of housing developers to propose a condo or rental development with at least 20% of its units as affordable – something not likely to happen in lucrative towns.  In mature suburbs, where extensive new multi-family construction at any price is unlikely, this Act has little reach.  It leaves the door open for Home Rule communities to opt out.  And while its enforcement mechanism is a Housing Appeals Board that could potentially overturn a local zoning decision in favor of developers who can prove that the denial of their project was due to the affordable component, the seven-member Board must include three members from “non-exempt” communities – that is, those with little affordable housing.

But the spirit of the law remains: building inclusive communities. 

Governor Quinn, thank you for appointing me to the Appeals Board.  It is an honor to be the member designated as “affordable housing advocate.”  Naturally, one would hope that all seven members of this Board would be affordable housing advocates. 

I look forward to working with this Board and with the State to move beyond a role of “reaction.”  If we “feel the need of others,” let’s make this law turn plans into units.  Let’s solicit the creative voices of our municipalities like the Winnetka Plan Commission, which came up with a variety of tools to foster affordable housing within its borders, not all of which involved new construction, and give them the support they need to diversify their housing stock.

Just as our nation struck down racial segregation in schools and housing, so we need to strike down economic exclusivity in our towns.

In a society, we do have claims on one another for the basic necessities of survival.  Otherwise, we find ourselves navigating a storm, alone.  Reflecting on King Lear’s debasement, Michael Ignatieff, in The Needs of Strangers, quotes Shakespeare: “’Basest beggars’ can always be found to be ‘in the poorest thing superfluous.’” 

Governor Quinn, we count on your example.  As Lear cried out, in warning to all future leaders:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Glenn Farkas March 23, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Beth Steger is correct. The focus should be on fixing the neighborhoods/schools where there are major problems, not abandoning them and forcing them into better run communities. The property tax system in place is a fraud on many levels, and a better allocation education dollars would be prudent. But money alone will not cure the ills in the inner city. The reason our suburbs are successful is due to a combination of money, family and commitment to education (in the school and in the home). Somehow, Ms. Schecter chooses to ignore the latter two. Conservatives want the same results as Liberals, we just don't believe in the same means to get there.
Gail Schechter March 23, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Very thoughtful commentary, Jim. At least there is no place where "animosity" against affordable housing is unanimous. I think that if the state is serious about treating all communities equal in terms of setting a minimum percentage of affordable housing, then the state also needs to give these towns some customized leeway in meeting that goal -- while standing absolutely firm on the goal. For better or worse, there needs to be a stick along with the carrot precisely because, as you say, "there will always be a minority of well to do who will segregate themselves." As Michael Ignatieff writes so astutely, "The pathos of need, like the pathos of all truly verbal claims to the justice or mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it."
Fred Vuk March 23, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Separate but equal right Glenn
Glenn Farkas March 23, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Yeah right Fred, we want to see Jim Crow laws reinstated throughout the land. Don't be an idiot. As far as I know, the US allows citizens here to live anywhere they want as long as they can afford to live there. Ms Schechter does not have a right to extort, intimidate or blackmail municipalities and developers to satisfy her view of fairness. If she wants to build low-income housing, let her use her money (and her private donations) and purchase property at fair market value and then rent/sell it to whoever she desires. If she can handle negative returns on her investment, that's great. And at the end of the day, she'll only accommodate a small number of families while the vast majority will be living in failing schools and communities. Bottom line: fix the underlying problem and stop the idealistic window dressing.
BRG April 05, 2012 at 06:19 PM
We are definitely middle class and dropping and we are not able to stay in Evanston because the property taxes are so high. It is programs like this that perpetuate the huge disparities in economic conditions that plague our community and schools. It is not race but SES differences that fuel social problems. Social welfare programs such as these squeeze hard-working families and not you rich folks Ms Schechter.

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