On most days, the abandoned café at the corner of 75th and Dorchester might as well be any other. In many neighborhoods on the South Side, foreclosed properties like this one aren’t exactly hard to find. Pick a block—almost any block—and you’ll find an empty home, a boarded-up storefront. Maybe both. Maybe more. It’s a story people have long been familiar with.
But if you come on the right weekday night, the café will be in business. The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign has moved in, and it’s here to stay. The campaign started around public housing in 2009, when some of the last buildings at Cabrini-Green were facing demolition, but it’s since turned its attention to a the fight for housing itself.
“I’m a national organizing activist, not a local joker,” Willie “J.R.” Fleming says, confidently bounding into the café. J.R. is one of the campaign’s founders, and its current chairman. But for all his healthy self-assurance, he’s not blind to the daunting task they face. “What can you do when the government says, ‘We got no resources’?” he asks.
The Anti-Eviction Campaign’s solution is to provide its own. It scouts out abandoned homes and arranges for people to live in them, matching “homeless people with peopleless homes,” as J.R. likes to say. It canvasses neighborhoods to build up community support. It connects homeowners and tenants going through foreclosure with lawyers to help them with the legal process, and accompanies them to court. It protests at banks that have signed fraudulent and predatory loans. And now, it’s branching out to advocate for policy changes, too.
These neighborhoods were already in trouble when the financial crisis struck; when the housing market tanked, they were the hardest hit. And there’s little sign that things are improving.
The ten community areas with the highest rate of foreclosure filings in Chicago in 2012 were all on the South Side. Unsurprisingly, South Side neighborhoods also claim the highest rates of vacant properties. As of the end of 2012, over five percent of all properties in sixteen South Side community areas had been vacant for two or more years. The total for Chicago was 2.86 percent.
Abandoned properties have consequences. In 2012, an average of seven crimes were committed in vacant Chicago buildings or lots each day, according to a study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, one of the groups that works with the campaign.
“You have neighborhoods that used to be stable communities being dragged down,” one of the other founders of the campaign, Toussaint Losier, says. “Go through parts of Woodlawn, Chatham, Auburn-Gresham, and there are no Century 21 signs.”
Meanwhile, the median sales prices of properties in neighborhoods such as Woodlawn and Washington Park have barely recovered—if at all—from the sharp hit they took in late 2008.
“There’s an old saying,” Losier, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago, recalls: “Blacks were the last hired and the first fired.” The worry is that, in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, this will be mirrored in housing.
“A lot of researchers are conservatively pointing to at least five more years of elevated [foreclosure] filings,” Patricia Fron, the buildings program administrator at the LCBH, tells me, pointing to a December 2012 report compiled by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
I ask her why it’s five years, as if that means things could get better in six.
She hesitates. “It looks like this crisis that we’re having is far from over.”
A foreclosure crisis can easily work itself into a nasty cycle. When banks take over properties in distressed neighborhoods, they often make little attempt to sell, instead leaving them vacant. This in turn decreases the values of surrounding properties, causes community divestment, incites crime, and, if the cycle continues, begets further foreclosures. And many properties that went into foreclosure once are at risk to do so again. The neighborhoods are still deteriorating.
“In some parts of the city things are recovering; in others, not so much,” Spencer Cowan, vice president of the Woodstock Institute, an economic research group, says. The fact that, on the whole, slightly fewer foreclosure filings are being reported each year “doesn’t mean a community is getting better. In some communities, one in six properties have already been auctioned [due to foreclosure]. That’s a huge number.”
In fact, in nine of those ten most affected neighborhoods, yearly foreclosure filings that decreased from 2009 to 2011 went back up in 2012. Meanwhile, the cumulative percentage of units affected by foreclosure in Chicago rose from 9.5 percent in 2009 to 13.8 percent in 2011, to 15.4 percent in 2012, and is now over thirty percent in eight South Side community areas. It’s entirely possible that even as some of the foreclosure filing numbers improve, the actual situation in many of these communities could be getting worse.
“There used to be a saying that the divide between the North Side and the South Side was as big as the Chicago River,” J.R. recalls. “Now it’s as big as Lake Michigan.” That may be true, but there are also differences within the South Side itself—differences that can make broader market trends all the less relevant.
“The [real estate] market is very local, even to a neighborhood level,” Cowan says.
Indeed, Brian Sleet, chief of staff for 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer, told me he could see the differences just between Chatham and the parts of Englewood in his ward, though both are struggling. Chatham has a more sizable elderly population, and more homes that have been paid off. And the numbers bear out: in 2012 there were five foreclosure filings per hundred residential parcels in Englewood, a filing rate second only to that of Burnside, southeast of Chatham. In Chatham, there were 3.8. (As a whole, the city experienced 2.4 filings per hundred parcels.)
These local differences only make the solutions for areas like Englewood more difficult. “Until we find out a way to figure out a multiple number of problems,” Cowan says—lack of private sector investment, high crime rates, education—“things aren’t going to get better.”
While it’s tough to sum up the mission of the campaign, the best way to describe it might be as a fight against this deterioration. As J.R. puts it, “the heart of the campaign is engaging community.” Much of the goal is to keep people in their homes, or to put them in others, but the campaign’s efforts aren’t strictly limited to real estate. When two or three homes on a block get boarded up, something essential is inevitably lost. Something that needs to be rebuilt.
The campaign’s idea is that a neighbor who pays no rent is better than having no neighbor at all. A family home with a well-mowed lawn is better than an empty drug house with broken windows. Putting “homeless people into peopleless homes” benefits the homeless first, but it benefits everyone else too.
“Part of what we tell people is that they have to be a good neighbor,” Losier explains. “You’re not just putting someone into a place, but trying to weave them into a community, too.”
When the campaign orchestrated its first move-in to an abandoned home, two summers ago, it was called “risky” in the headline of an article in the New York Times. Yet the family, Martha Biggs and her children, is still there.
At one meeting, Biggs recounted a recent, failed eviction attempt. The sheriffs ended up having the wrong name, but when they came, the neighbors “were standing there like I was kin,” Biggs said. “They knew me.”
I ask J.R., who grew up in Cabrini and is now homeless and unemployed, what his community is.
“The city of Chicago is my community,” he says. “I’m not anti-Chicago, I’m not anti-America. I’m pro-people.”
Willie “J.R.” Fleming. Photo by Cam Bauchner
No campaign can stand as a perfect barometer of the issues it responds to, but the pattern between the foreclosure crisis and the Anti-Eviction Campaign is striking. The campaign is only a few years old, and already its activities have shifted dramatically.
“We didn’t necessarily plan to shift from [public] housing to foreclosures,” Losier says. “The ground we were working on was shifting.”
When the campaign began in Cabrini back in 2009, most of its leaders—like J.R.—were residents of the projects. Its first eviction blockade, in November of that year, was part of the fight against the public housing shutdown. Part of the reason they branched out was that there was already a similar group of residents fighting on behalf of Cabrini.
But there were other reasons. Their first clients came to them. A woman who was trying to turn a building into a daycare center in Rogers Park was going through foreclosure, and the campaign tried to help her keep the property.
They lost, but in court they met another family facing foreclosure. They put all their efforts toward the case, and it worked. The family got a loan modification in early 2010.
More people came seeking support. “We were like, ‘Hey, maybe we can help you out,’ ” Losier says. “We saw how it could become a broader community effort.”
The campaign started moving faster and holding press conferences. Martha Biggs moved into the first abandoned home that June. Before long, the Anti-Eviction Campaign was a group with clout. It was a small group, but one with enough force to win concessions in certain isolated cases.
And when they started taking more cases, they noticed a trend. At the start of the housing crisis, the face of foreclosure had long been the high-risk mortgage, the predatory loan. Those problems have not gone away. “But we found a lot of people [affected by foreclosure] whose rates weren’t going up,” Losier says. Tenants, especially, were an issue.
When an apartment unit goes through foreclosure, the tenants are usually not responsible. Yet they still feel the effects. If the property closes, they have to find somewhere else to live.
This is often the case when properties are taken over by a bank. “Banks don’t want to be landlords, simply put,” Fron, from the LCBH, explains. “They make efforts to vacate properties almost as soon as possible.”
In 2009, Congress passed the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act. The law established guarantees for tenants who reside in properties that get foreclosed, including a ninety-day notice before asking them to vacate their home, and the right to live out the length of their lease if it extends further. The Illinois Mortgage Foreclosure Law further stipulates that all tenants must be notified when their property exchanges hands, and Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance requires that any “successor landlord,” including banks, maintain the property. But these laws are often violated.
In a 2010 report, the LCBH found that—among other violations—banks taking over properties had refused to collect rent, forced tenants out early, incorrectly informed them of their rights, and shut off crucial utilities. One sample notice cited in the report warns: “Everyone has to vacate this property within one week or you will be evicted!”
“It’s a daunting prospect to move when it’s out of your control,” Fron says, “especially for people of limited means. Most tenants aren’t aware of the foreclosure on their home until very late in the process, usually until there’s a new owner.”
Even when tenants are legally displaced, the impact of foreclosures can be devastating. With fewer properties and more tenants, it becomes harder to find affordable housing. Families switch communities, and children switch schools—if a new home is found at all.
Through the campaign, Losier has come across many who “aren’t necessarily living on the street, but living on family members’ couches.”
“This has gone on for so long without direct action,” Fron laments.
There have been some efforts to change policy. In February 2012, federal and state prosecutors won a national foreclosure settlement against some of the nation’s largest banks, freeing up $25 billion for assistance to those who had been affected by fraudulent bank practices. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has pledged that $70 million from the settlement will be given to the “Illinois communities fraught with vacant and abandoned properties that have been hardest hit by foreclosure.”
Cook County is asking for $20 million of the Illinois pool. One of the ideas is to establish a land bank to identify vacant properties and connect them with new owners, who would eventually be expected to pay taxes. But the land bank is designed to move slowly, so as not to shake up the market, and it’s unclear how much money it will actually get. A board of directors was set up in February; they met for the first time two weeks ago.
Another idea that has been put forth is the “Keep Chicago Renting” ordinance, introduced by 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell last year. The ordinance would require banks that take over foreclosed properties with active, rent-paying tenants to pay $12,000 to each tenant before forcing them to leave. Similar laws have been passed elsewhere—notably in Los Angeles, where the requirement is $18,000. Still, the ordinance has been met with resistance, and a general lack of attention to the gravity of the situation on the South Side remains.
I called Alderman Mell’s office, on the North Side, in Irving Park, to check on the status of “Keep Chicago Renting” last Thursday. I explained I was a reporter writing a story about the lingering foreclosure crisis.
“Foreclosure crisis?” the staffer on the line asked. “Do you mean in California or Florida?”
No, I said. I’m writing about the foreclosure crisis in Chicago.
“I don’t know of any foreclosure crisis in Chicago,” the staffer told me. “You must mean California or Florida. Not here.”
As it turned out, the ordinance had been approved for a full vote before the City Council earlier that day (with the payout reduced to $10,600). The vote was held on June 5, after this piece went to press.
As much as the campaign supports these efforts—J.R. was visibly excited at the news that “Keep Chicago Renting” would be put before the whole council—its fight is still bigger. The campaign’s self-proclaimed mission is the fight for the “human right to housing.” It’s not something that’s going to be solved by incremental solutions alone.
The idea behind the “human right to housing” is not meant to be abstract or theoretical, but something very simple. The campaign wants people to realize that what they’re fighting is too staggering to be summed up in mushy terms of right or wrong, legal or illegal. It’s too urgent, too essential. As Losier puts it, “It’s not necessarily about what’s right or what ought to happen, but fundamental human dignity.”
Or, as one member at a recent meeting said: “If you don’t have a house you die. What is all this about ‘inalienable rights?’ ”
Of course, the idea of a human right to housing is not exactly new. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…housing,” states Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was ratified by the United Nations and signed by the United States in 1948. “Nevertheless,” reports the NLCHP, “government policies have not traditionally treated housing as a right.” The center recommends that “U.S. housing advocates can and should use international human rights standards to reframe public debate…and support community organizing efforts.”
A bigger fight requires a bigger approach. Losier cites the “sword and shield” strategy advocated by City Life, a similar group in Boston. The strategy mixes action and defense, fights against the system and fights for individuals. The legal fight is important, but it’s not the only one. Civil disobedience is justified, necessary even.
In Boston, the “sword” often entails sit-ins and blockades to protest planned evictions. But in Chicago, the Anti-Eviction Campaign has had to adapt to a different set of circumstances. “The sheriff doesn’t tell you when he’s going to evict you,” Losier remarks. They’ve only gotten to do a few sit-ins. But the campaign hasn’t been idle. They picketed at a Wells Fargo in April, and they’re planning a march at the same bank branch where one of its members was given a fraudulent loan.
“If we combine what is happening in court with stuff on the ground…that really makes a difference,” Losier explained at one meeting at the café, in preparation for the bank protest. “We can’t just be defensive, like the Bulls. We need offense.” Several people nod in agreement. “And I mean Derrick Rose-type offense,” Losier adds. “Not that little guy who showed up in the playoffs.”
photo by Cam Bauchner
Meetings at the café are all-purpose, a mixed bag of strategic planning, situational updates, and individual assistance. Just about everything takes place around one long table in the center of the room. Pamphlets, newspapers, and protest signs litter the café’s periphery. There’s a certain degree of order, but things are also fairly flexible. The first time I went to a meeting, Losier immediately sat down to help a new couple sort out their case. The meeting didn’t get going until he’d come close to finishing, about half an hour late. At another, J.R. started talking, then drifted into powerful sermon. He stood up, voice booming: “Don’t move. Stay in your home. Fight.”
“It’s the story of the walkaways,” he later explained to me. Too many tenants and homeowners leave when they still have a chance of keeping their residence. Too many don’t know enough about the legal process—or don’t have the money to spend—to defend themselves. “We definitely have a system that’s failed people,” J.R. says, looking hard into the distance.
One man at the meetings has been in foreclosure for twenty-six months. Another came back who’d been helped in court by the campaign in 2011, worried he might be about to go into foreclosure again.
A current case concerns Emma Harris. Harris is ninety-one years old, soft-spoken with a merry face. She used to own two six-unit apartment buildings, until, she says, a property manager she hired stole her money. She went into foreclosure, and had to refinance in 2008. But the rents she had to report to the bank in order to get a new loan were too high. “I had to lie about them,” she told me.
There’s not a lot that can get Harris down. Even in a protest on her behalf, documented on the campaign’s YouTube channel, she can be seen standing next to J.R., beaming constantly. Still, her son, Thurlester Wilson, attests to the difficulty of the situation. “This is taking a toll on the family,” he said at one meeting, citing “emotional damages.”
Another regular at the meetings is Michael Henderson, who’s been fighting for his house for longer than the Anti-Eviction Campaign has been around. Henderson has told his story before—in an e-book available for Kindle—but he’s not afraid of telling it again. He rattles off the facts of his foreclosure case with an easy, if rightly agitated, composure. “This stuff is a big joke,” he concludes.
He had a heart attack in 2009. He gets by without utilities, boiling his own water. But, as he told me, “I’m fighting my case whether I lose it or not.”
One of the main features of the café meetings is the introduction. Everyone sitting around the table, from first-timers to seasoned vets, takes a moment to state their name and tell their story. After every introduction, the other members conclude in unison: “And we’ll fight with you.”
It’s not just a catchphrase. Grit and tenacity are the true hallmarks of the campaign, and its members have borne them out. They’re fighters.
“We knew that Cabrini was going to be torn down,” Losier says of the campaign’s early days, when the fight was still about public housing. But whether the demolition of the projects would result in mixed-income homes, condos, or a different form of public housing was—and in some ways still is—up in the air. They fought for what was left.
Of course, the campaign is about a fight against a nearly insurmountable divide, a fight for communities that have been ignored, and even with the determination of its members, adversity can’t help but seep through.
Just a few moments after distinguishing himself from a “local joker,” J.R. fell into sober reminiscence. Between the challenges of running the campaign and finding time for his family—he missed a meeting for a relative’s funeral, and he’s still “throwing passes” with his sons—he said that other things have had to be sacrificed.
I asked Wilson, one of the more openly enthusiastic members of the campaign, what drives him and his mother to keep coming out to meetings, to keep pushing for her property.
“Whatever we have to do,” he told me. But how many people are willing to go that far? How many people can?
That is, perhaps, why J.R. and the others are so intent on engaging community.
“If you feel like you’re the only one, you’re in trouble,” one man told me, during a café meeting. “This organization was responsible for saving my house. If they call for a rally, I’m there.”
As the foreclosure crisis lingers, no one will be able to fight it out alone. It’s hard enough for one homeowner or tenant to handle the foreclosure process separately; it’s even harder for one person to fight the process that made this situation possible.
“A lot of people will walk past an abandoned home and think, ‘That’s bad,’ ” Losier explains. “We want to be in a position to change how people think about things. We’re trying to get people to realize they can do something about it.”
“You can’t do any of it without canvassing,” J.R. adds.
The Anti-Eviction Campaign may just be entering a formative stage. Last week they had a promising meeting as part of an application for a grant. This summer, J.R. hopes to expand to hold open community workshops. The hope is that, as they broaden their reach, they can broaden their results. It’s good to be in a position where you have the clout to win back a home or get a modification on a loan, but it’s a position the campaign never wanted to have to be in at all.
“She worked forty years for that,” Thurlester Wilson says of his mother. “Would you leave that property?”