By Michael Donley and Carmilla Manzanet
IF NOT HERE THEN WHERE???
These words were emblazoned on a sign held by a protestor at the mostly-shuttered Lathrop Homes public housing project in Chicago on Palm Sunday. Lathrop Homes, located in the North Side neighborhood of Logan Square, has become a symbol of gentrification and the displacement of public housing residents.
My wife, Carmilla Manzanet, and I, along with thousands of other former Chicago Housing Authority residents, and Housing Choice Voucher recipients, are languishing in uncertainty.
The Plan for Transformation remains a failed policy. Yet, for 15 years, city planners, developers, and government officials. Continue to push for privatization and wholesale displacement via gentrification.
Housing has always been synonymous with wealth, family, and success. The symbol of American prosperity. A place to call home. A safe haven to raise your children, or to get away from the stressors of life.
Homeownership and affordable housing have become nothing more than a fantasy or fairytale in America and other developed countries around the world.
The housing situations and struggles that Carmilla and I have encountered through the course of our lives. Illustrate many of the quagmires-of injustices, failed policies, inefficient bureaucracies that characterize housing in the United States.
Michael Recounts His Story…
I grew up in the Douglas neighborhood of Chicago with three older brothers — Larue, Marvin, Lawrence — and my parents Washington and Mytlene Donley. In 1958 my parents moved to 2822 South Calumet Avenue, a federally-funded annex of the city- and state-funded Harold Ickes Homes, formerly located along the infamous State Street corridor of public housing developments.
The development where I lived; was formally considered an annex of Harold Ickes. But, we were a part of the Prairie Courts development. Which was the development in the neighborhood our home we called the (PC’s.) Prairie Courts; was designed by architects and brothers William and George Keck.
We moved in the year construction was completed.
I lived there for about 23 years until both of my parents were deceased. Before moving to 2822 South Calumet, my parents were married; my father, a WWII veteran, worked multiple jobs. He owned his own vehicle and a building on the South Side. But that was before he began to struggle with mental illness.
Where I lived in the projects was surrounded by wealth. We could look at downtown Chicago all day, but; this symbol of economic power never shone its light on our community. Eventually, My neighborhood would metaphorically be desolate, without an inhabitant. Thanks to the Plan for Transformation. A plan to redevelop public housing.
Set to launch in 2000. The plan was billed as a way to replace troubled public housing developments with; mixed-income developments. That would lift the fortunes of public housing residents.
The premise was to have low-income; working-class residents live surrounded by people with higher incomes working professionals. Who – the planners thought – would serve as role models. But it was a rouse; in reality, the plan would be a plan for displacement that would devastate families and destroy former communities of public housing.
The projects where I grew up were demonized by the public and politicians. Living in public housing came with the added expense of feeling expendable in the eyes of the police, politicians, and businessmen.
Middle-and upper-income citizens, white and black, who avoided and scoffed at the people who called public housing developments home.
Public housing was created during the Great Depression. Before that time, numerous poor and working-class residents lived in substandard private market housing; many of the tenements were owned and operated by slumlords.
Poverty has been a fact of life for all immigrant groups that have come to America to fulfill their ambitions. Yet, it continues to be a systemic issue for Blacks. Who, were overwhelmingly shipped to America by force to work as slaves. These were the people who also ended up in public housing across the country, and Chicago was no different.
Public Housing – Myths and Reality
In its early days, the Chicago Housing Authority was not a black-only experience. Ethnic whites and Latinos also lived in public housing. In fact, Italian Americans were the majority of people living in the Lathrop Homes. Lathrop Homes was one of the first public housing developments built in Chicago.
The area I grew up in is a great location. From my bedroom window, I had a beautiful view of the Lake Michigan horizon. I enjoyed watching the sailboats and ships during the summer. The elementary school I attended, John B. Drake Elementary, located at 2722 South King Drive, is now shuttered.
My older brothers graduated from the older Drake school building next door, We called Old Drake. There was a Drake Elementary annex. Located in a non-public housing development named South Commons located at 29th Street and Indiana Avenue – the building has recently been demolished. The Annex was created to separate children from non-public housing complexes. South Commons and the neighboring Near South Side neighborhood a school their children could attend without having to interact with students from the projects.
Many of the people I grew up with lived in two-parent households, despite the widely held belief that many of us grew up without a father. These and other negative stereotypes of Black people who called public housing (The Projects) home helped to fuel the demise of public housing in the court of public opinion.
Contrary to stereotypes, my time growing up in public housing was not a daily nightmare of gang shootings and muggings. The reason was that we all knew our neighbors; parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles who lived in the neighborhood. If someone stole from you – for example, broke into your home and stole your television; you would know who did it. Violent killings were a rare occurrence.
The neighborhood I grew up in was not drug-infested. But there was clear evidence that people needed financial and support were being left behind. During the 1980s, my neighborhood began to succumb to the cocaine and crack addiction that would ravage; and destabilize inner-city ghettoes and working-class communities across America.
By 1988, Bill Clinton had been elected president, and the War On Drugs was at its height. The get tough on crime era had arrived. The gangs and drug dealers must be put away. Hence three strikes (crimes) and you receive a life sentence. In Chicago, it was the era of Lockdowns in public housing, A period beginning in the late eighties and continued until 1996.
The Chicago Housing Authority and the federal government circumvented the; fourth Amendment. Under the pretext that the Chicago Housing Authority can inspect their property without a search warrant. The federal government gave; Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Police Department the legal right to enter tenents apartments and search for guns, drugs, and illegal tenants.
Men who were living with women or just visiting. Men who were fathers of the children these women were raising. The piousness of the Chicago Housing Authority coerced some couples to get married to continue living together, as detailed in a Chicago Tribune story in 1988.
The Chicago Housing Authority also began to evict more tenants for lease violations. Developments such as the Henry Horner Homes began to experience high vacancy rates. Prairie Courts did not until the Plan For Transformation began in 2000.
My mother died in 1985. My father would pass about four years later in 1989. After my father passed, my living situation became uncertain for about six months. I was 22 years old unemployed, hungry, and on the verge of experiencing homelessness.
I reluctantly asked my brother Marvin if I could live with him. He moved to a building on Cermak and Indiana Avenues, where I resided for about two years, from 1991 to 1993. I became employed and got on the Chicago Housing Authority wait-list for public housing.
I was contacted in the fall of 1993. I had been chosen to receive an apartment in the Harold Ickes Homes. Located at 44 W. 24th Street. My rent was $165 per month for a one-bedroom unit. I was able to afford the rent, working for slightly over minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour. I lived there for five years, until December 1998.
I continued to work full-time in the printing and graphic arts field. I attended college. First, at Kennedy-King city College, then Robert Morris University. Where I received an associate degree in Graphic Arts.
I was able to qualify for an apartment due to the protest and pushback carried out by Chicago Housing Authority residents and advocates during the lockdown era. Many were demanding that Chicago Housing Authority eliminate its long-standing policy of not renting apartments to single men. The unjust policy. Was ultimately changed.
Contrasting my housing history growing up with Carmilla’s housing history. Has helped me realize; I had it a lot better in terms of stable housing. I grew up in public housing. But I had a normal childhood. Regardless; of having my share; of family issues to deal with.
Carmilla Recounts Her Story…
I, Carmilla Manzanet, was born in January 1970 and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My housing history started in the South Shore neighborhood. Where my parents Freddie Cochran a Chicago police officer, and Faydrian Miller; lived in an apartment. Before marrying in 1975. My father purchased a home in the West Englewood neighborhood. ,
The community was in a state of transition, White flight, the beginning stages of Englewood becoming an all-black neighborhood as many of the South and Westside neighborhoods would become in the 1980s. Early in my childhood, my parents argued often. Until one night, my mother ran away from home. Fearing for her life.
It was the beginning of the type of nomadic lifestyle my younger sister Charmaine and I would live. The lifestyle that impairs; the education of homeless youth. I was unable to attend school consistently. Sometimes remaining out of school for as long as six months.
My parents eventually divorced in 1978. For the next six to eight years, I would come to witness the trauma of eviction, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
In 1983, my mother decided to move to Lisle, Illinois. I was a seventh-grade junior high student. I lived in Lisle until 1987 when I left my mother and moved in with my father and his fourth wife.
I graduated from William Rainey Harper High in 1988. In 1990, my father and stepmother purchased a home in the Beverly neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
A predominately White Middle-class neighborhood. Many of our neighbors had no problem expressing their bigoted or racist feelings towards you living in the community.
In 1990 my father put me out of his house. I ended up living with my uncle and his wife in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. One of the most diverse city neighborhoods in America at the time.
I became employed and rented two apartments while living there.
In August of 1992, I married Peter Manzanet and gave birth to my oldest son, Girbraun, in December of 1992. I remained in Uptown. In 1993 I had to move. Because I became unemployed. New management took over the building. And increased the rent.
I decided to move to the South Suburb of University Park to live with a friend I knew from my old neighborhood of West Englewood.
The relationship soon deteriorated. I reunited with my husband. His family helped us rent an apartment in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. We were only there for a month. Because we could not pay the rent. We had to move back in with my family in Chicago.
However, being there was not like being at home at all. My father and stepmother were angry with me. I was not living a stable lifestyle. After; a month. We were looking for housing again.
My husband took us to the suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois. To live amongst the Mexican immigrant community.
Within three days, I decided to leave, with the aid of a friend. I ended up in a homeless shelter in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. I lived there for a few months. I received $500 to find a place to live.
I met a woman named Rebecca, a truck driver escaping domestic abuse. We moved into a two-story house where I lived for 30 days, paying $500 per month rent. I was unable to raise $500 for the second month.
I contacted my husband, and we reunited again. We moved into a building on the West Side of Chicago. Where my husband was working for an older white man who owned a very run-down and blighted building.
We lived there for two weeks. My husband decided we should move to New York. We arrived in Brooklyn in January 1994 and stayed with his mother in Sunset Park.
After several months an opportunity came about, allowing Peter and me to move into the home of a family friend. Located in Staten Island, New York.
The house had a finished basement converted into a studio apartment. We moved in May of 1994 and stayed there for about nine months.
We were evicted due to non-payment of rent and had to seek shelter at the local EAU (Emergency Assistance Unit). That began a period of homelessness. We moved from; shelter to shelter. I became ill with chickenpox. Meanwhile, Peter and I had to leave our children in the care of his family.
We were directed to the Eddie Harris Shelter located in the Bronx. While living there. We began the process to qualify for the (Emergency Assistance Rehousing Program). The process; lasted about a year. I received my Section 8 voucher. under a federal program. Where voucher-holders live in private rental housing. Tenants pay one-third of their income in rent.
The government agency Housing & Urban Development pays the rest. The Section 8 certificate was a large piece of paper, the size of a large diploma with gold trim — very classy, as I remember.
The way the private market exploited and profited from government-subsidized housing vouchers was anything but classy. Many of these private landlords who rented to Section 8 tenants were nothing more than slumlords who were not concerned with providing safe and decent housing. Section 8 tenants such as myself could not expect to find homes that are safe, lead-free, and heated with modern amenities.
The homes I rented via Section 8 were never fully modernized. The buildings were old, moldy, drafty with old leaded pipes and plumbing in need of repair and complete overhaul.
Apartment buildings with foundations cracked. Single-pane windows and wiring decades old. Lead paint, roaches, mice, bedbugs, and other insects. It is frustrating to know that these landlords take your money and tax dollars. You never get the respect a tenant deserves.
Landlords have been led to believe a Section 8 tenant deserves less in terms of quality of life and living conditions. We all suffer because some people do not appreciate having a place to call home.
My Section 8 voucher; did not bring me stability; or peace of mind. I continued to live a nomadic and chaotic lifestyle. I resided in apartments in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, and Long Island.
In 1998 I separated from my husband and moved back to Chicago.
My father died in 1995 from prostate cancer. It will always sadden me that I was unable to be there before he died and attend his funeral.
My mother and I were never able to reconcile. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2010 of pancreatic cancer, after living out her last days in homelessness.
Carmilla and I Tell Our Story…
I met Carmilla on October 30, 1998. She was living with her stepmother and half-brother in Beverly on the Southwest Side of Chicago. We soon decided to move in together and found a home utilizing Carmilla’s Section 8 certificate, located on South Myrtle Avenue in Harvey, Ill.
This was my first experience with the madness people went through renting from the private market via Section 8. We felt the landlord, a black female, was a slumlord who took advantage of women who rented from her.
The home was in dilapidated condition and needed repairs. The landlord was only interested in profiting from the government subsidy. I even offered to pay extra since I was not technically on the lease at the time, and I did pay extra. However, this did not satisfy her. Eventually, she decided to put us through eviction court to get possession of the house.
This was my first experience with eviction court. In Harvey or Chicago, eviction court is not a place that favors tenants facing unjust evictions. And we could not find adequate legal counsel in the area. So in April of 2000, Carmilla and I, with our four young children, had to vacate the house and became homeless.
We went to the home of my brother, who was renting at the time in West Englewood. We stayed there for about three months. Then Carmilla and I decided to move to Detroit, Michigan.
The landlord we dealt with in Detroit was a black male who had recently purchased this dilapidated building on Baldwin Street. He also followed the same script of putting as little money as possible into making the building livable.
He even gave us a dirty mailbox. He must have gotten off an abandoned home. When the housing inspector came, she told Carmilla that the foundation was cracked and that the building should be condemned. We lived there for five years before we were finally able to move back to Chicago.
In November 2005, during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, we packed our moving truck and moved. We moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. The building we moved into on North Hermitage Avenue was a dilapidated three-flat next to a community garden across from Triangle Park.
The apartment was a two-bedroom converted into a three-bedroom by the landlord erecting a wall in the dining room to partition off the third bedroom. Carmilla and I were hopeful that this would be a fresh start to our housing situation. And for the first two years, things were going okay. Carmilla participated in the Work-First program and was eventually hired by A&D Wholesale as a supervisor of the packaging department.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2007 when Carmilla was hired to work full-time. She reported to CHAC, the agency that administered the Section 8 program, that her income status had changed.
In August 2007, Carmilla went to CHAC for recertification for the voucher. She was required to have three consecutive months of paystubs to show proof of income. Carmilla did not have all these paystubs.
Because of the discrepancy with the pay stubs, CHAC ruled Carmilla would have her housing choice voucher terminated. They claimed she had not reported all of her income. (gross earnings for the year were $8420.00) and that she owed the agency $2,400 in additional rent – since Section 8 tenants are supposed to pay a third of their income in rent.
Her voucher languished in termination status for more than four years during several appeals. In January of 2013, Carmilla received a final letter of termination from CHAC.
Taking on Blackstone
We attended a meeting held by a member of a local housing group. At the meeting, they discussed the pros and cons of occupying a home owned by a bank or investor corporation. After this meeting,
Carmilla and I decided to move in and squat in a house. The next day, we found a vacant home in our neighborhood. That was owned by a bank. We quickly began the process of reclaiming it as our own home and a spot for the community.
The landlord where we had been using the voucher was ultimately successful in evicting us. We were able to thwart her attempts to keep our security deposit of $2,000 and interest that accrued to $281. We got the money back thanks to a housing attorney who enjoyed going after slumlords.
We paid the landlord $1,000 to remain at the apartment throughout March 2013. Carmilla and I continued the process of clearing out our new home. We spent our last $1,000 removing debris from the house with the help of housing activists and volunteers.
Carmilla and I, our two younger children, Peter and, Daniela; lived in our home for more than two months. Until April 29,, 2013 when a representative of Invitation Homes, a subsidiary of the private equity firm Blackstone Group LP, came to take possession.
Invitation Homes had purchased this home in March 2013. In Chicago and around the country, Invitation Homes and other Blackstone subsidiaries have purchased tens of thousands of homes that were foreclosed upon or in foreclosure, turning them into single-family rentals.
Invitation Homes set about evicting us, but they chose what we maintain was an illegal and dangerous method. Rather than go through the proper legal process. Wherein the Cook County Sheriff carries out an eviction, the Chicago Police were called. We were evicted at gunpoint and locked out of the house.
April 29, 2013, we were arrested and then released on an I-bond, without having to post bail. April 30, 2013, We re-entered the home to retrieve a SNAP benefits card and other items, which we were unable to find. We were arrested. This time our bonds were set at $10,000 and $5,000.
My brother was able to bail me out before 11:00pm. I would have had to spend the night. The group Communities United bailed out Carmilla The following afternoon.
Carmilla and I were unable to save our family. We were rendered homeless. Carmilla lost her pets; fish, turtle Ayaka, and our cat, Angel. We decided to dedicate every day to researching and educating ourselves about the Blackstone Group and the dangers of Wall Street firms potentially becoming one of the largest landlords and slumlords in America.
We began to research the Blackstone Group and log each of the homes they were purchasing throughout Cook County in the state of Illinois. Using the databases of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds and Cook County Assessor.
We found that by the close of April 2014, Blackstone, its subsidiary, Invitation Homes. Had acquired more than 300 homes in Chicago and more than 1,500 in surrounding Cook County. Nationwide, Blackstone had; acquired more than 50,000 homes.
We noticed that Invitation Homes had purchased more than 250 homes on the Northwest Side of Chicago. We decided to canvass tenants to find out how they and the neighborhood were being affected. We guessed the Invitation Homes purchases might be causing gentrification and rising rents.
We began to organize and speak to community groups in the area. Initiating several canvassing campaigns in neighborhoods on the Northwest Side. In April 2014, we released an article with the aid of Rebecca Burns, an assistant editor with In These Times Magazine, entitled Game Of Homes.
It has been three years since Carmilla had her housing voucher terminated. We are now separated and estranged from our children. Our youngest daughter is living in Minnesota. Her daughter. Our eldest granddaughter is living with her father and grandmother in Chicago.
Our youngest son was with us during our first year of homelessness. He managed to remain in high school and eventually graduated on time. He attended college at Western Illinois University. He did not finish his freshman year. Students should not have to attend school homeless.
Inequality has created a higher education system for the haves and not for everyone. This has to change. Our son has since been able to get housing at la costa Norte located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. He has been living there since 2014.
Since being evicted from the Invitation Homes house, Carmilla and I have continued to be a family despite not receiving support from our extended family. We have spent our days and nights in numerous places and spaces while living, researching, writing, networking, and organizing.
We have slept in an abandoned apartment building, ATM stations, bus stop vestibules, park benches, numerous 24-hour restaurants and coffee shops, a storage unit, and a tent – urban camping.
We are thankful to all those who have helped us along the way and opened up their homes, allowing us to rest our weary bodies. Carmilla and I have had to endure hunger, sleep deprivation, constant noise pollution, and illness.
The struggles we have endured have made us wiser. We have been strengthened and have resiliency. The struggles and setbacks we have overcome have shaped and molded us into fierce advocates for housing and economic justice. We have become community journalists, Social Justice Activists, and Social Entrepreneurs.
In August 2014. The Peoples’ Institute For Housing Justice was founded. We have built a Facebook community of friends and activists. Who; believe it is only just and right that a fair society house all of its citizens.
We continue to survive homelessness. It should not be a way of life. Low-income families and wage earners need to have a safety net to ensure that no matter what happens. Housing is always there as a safe haven; a place for family, economic security, and human dignity.
Housing is a human right!!!
A right that has been ignored for far too long.