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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 on Palm Sunday. Located in the Logan Square neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, Lathrop 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 Section 8 Voucher recipients are asking this important and urgent question, as the so-called Plan for Transformation of public housing has languished in limbo for 15 years and now moves closer to privatization and wholesale displacement.
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. But 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, injustices, failed policies, inefficient bureaucracies that characterize housing in the U.S.
I grew up in the Douglas neighborhood of Chicago with three older brothers — Larue, Marvin, Lawrence — and my parents Washington and Mytlene Donley. We grew up in public housing, A.K.A “The Projects” or “jets.” 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. Though the development where I lived was formally considered an annex of Harold Ickes, we considered ourselves a part of the Prairie Courts development, in slang “the PC’s.” Prairie Courts was also home to a notable piece of architecture history — a passive solar building constructed by famous architect William Keck.
We moved in the year construction was completed.
I lived there for about 23 years, until both of my parents were deceased. Prior to moving to 2822 South Calumet, my parents were married and 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 that symbol of Chicago’s economic power never shone its light on our community. My neighborhood would soon be desolate, without an inhabitant, thanks to the city’s “Plan for Transformation” to redevelop public housing, launched 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, who would supposedly get replacement units surrounded by people with higher incomes who – the planners thought – would serve as role models. But the plan would prove to in reality be a plan for displacement that would devastate families and destroy Chicago’s public housing communities as we all knew them.
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, as well as 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, poor residents lived in substandard private market housing, including tenements 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, and it has been 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 or CHA was not a black-only experience. Ethnic whites and Latinos also lived in public housing. In fact, Italian Americans were the majority living in the Lathrop Homes, one of Chicago’s first public housing developments.
The area I grew up in is a great location. From my bedroom window I had a beautiful view of the Lake Michigan horizon and I enjoyed watching the sailboats 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 that school’s predecessor next door, known as Old Drake. We also had an annex to Drake Elementary 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 give children from the working- and middle-class families of South Commons and neighboring communities a school that their children could attend without having to associate with children 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 each other’s 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 T.V. –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 the people who needed economic help the most were being left behind. During the 1980’s, my neighborhood began to succumb to the cocaine and crack addiction that was going to ravage poor neighborhoods across America.
By 1988, Bill Clinton had been elected president and the War On Drugs was at its height. This was the era of “The Lockdowns” in public housing, a period beginning in the late ‘80s and continuing through 1996. The CHA And other public housing agencies with the aid of the federal government circumvented the fourth Amendment and forcibly entered tenants apartments under the pretext of CHA’s right to inspect their property. In other words, searching us for guns, drugs and illegal tenants. Men who were living with women but not on the lease risked being evicted after these raids. This forced some couples to get married to be allowed to continue living together, as detailed in a Chicago Tribune story in 1988.
The CHA also began to evict more tenants for lease violations, and developments such as the Henry Horner Homes began to experience high vacancy rates. That was something my community did not experience until the Plan For Transformation began in 2000.
My mother passed in 1985 and 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 and unemployed – hungry and on the verge of experiencing homelessness – when I reluctantly asked my brother Marvin if I could I live with him. He moved to a building on Cermak and Indiana Avenues, where I resided for about two years, from 1991 to 1993. During that time I became employed and got on the CHA wait-list for public housing.
I was contacted in the fall of 1993 and told that I had been chosen to receive an apartment in the Harold Ickes Homes, the building located at 44 W. 24th Street. My rent was $165 per month for a one-bedroom unit. I was able to afford the apartment, working for minimum wage which at the time was less than $5 per hour. I lived there for five years, until December 1998.
I was able to qualify for an apartment due to the protest and pushback carried out by CHA residents and advocates during the lockdown era. Many were demanding that CHA eliminate its long-standing policy of not renting apartments to single men, and the policy was ultimately changed.
Contrasting my experience with Carmilla’s housing history has helped me realize that I had it a lot better in terms of stable housing growing up, even though I grew up in some of the nation’s most infamous public housing projects and had my share of familial issues to deal with.
I, Carmilla Manzanet, was born in January 1970 and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. My housing history started in the South Shore neighborhood, where my parents (Freddie Cochran and Faydrian Miller) lived in an apartment prior to marrying and finally settling in 1975 in a home my father, a Chicago police officer, purchased in the West Englewood neighborhood.
The neighborhood was in a state of transition, specifically white flight, the beginning stages of Englewood becoming an all-black neighborhood as many of the South and West neighborhoods had or soon 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 type of lifestyle that impairs the education of many homeless youth. I was unable to attend school on a consistent basis, 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 as well as the trauma of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
In 1983, my mother decided to move to Lisle, Ill. I was a seventh-grade junior high student at the time. 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 Chicago’s Southwest Side. The residents there were mostly white, and many were bigoted or racist and didn’t mind making those feelings clear.
In 1990 my father put me out of his house. I ended up living with my uncle and his wife in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, 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 until 1993 when I became unemployed and 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 and I contacted my husband and we reunited. With the help of his family we were able to move into an apartment in Rolling Meadows Illinois but the apartment only lasted a month because we could not pay the rent. So we moved back to my parents’ home in Chicago.
However being there was not like being at home at all. My father and stepmother were angry with me because 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 to find a room amongst the Mexican immigrant community. After three days I decided to leave…and soon thanks to a friend’s help I ended up in a homeless shelter in Hoffman Estates, Ill. I lived there for a few months and then received $500 from the shelter to go find a place to live.
So I and another woman named Rebecca, a truck driver escaping domestic abuse, moved into a two-story house where I lived for 30 days, paying $500 for one month’s rent. I couldn’t raise the $500 for the second month’s rent, so 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. Afterwards, he decided we should move to New York. We arrived in Brooklyn in January 1994 and stayed with Peter’s mother in Sunset Park.
After several months an opportunity came about, allowing Peter and I to move into the home of a friend of the family in Staten Island, New York. The home had a finished basement converted into a studio apartment. We moved in May of 1994 and stayed there for about nine months.
But we couldn’t keep paying the rent, and eventually we were evicted and had to seek shelter at the local EAU (Emergency Assistance Unit). That began a period of housing instability where we moved from shelter to shelter and I became ill with the chicken pox. Meanwhile we had to rely on Peter’s family to care for our children.
We were directed to the Eddie Harris Shelter located in the Bronx, and while living there we began the process to qualify for E.A.R.P. (the Emergency Assistance Rehousing Program). It took about a year, but I eventually received my Section 8 voucher, under the federal program where voucher-holders live in private rental housing and pay one third of their income in rent, while the government pays the rest. The Section 8 certificate was a huge piece of paper, the size of a large diploma with gold trim — very classy, as I remember.
But the private market that 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 were 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. Cracked foundations, single-pane windows decades old, and a hodgepodge of wiring, lead paint, roaches, mice, bedbugs and other insects. It’s frustrating to know that these landlords take your rent money and you never get the respect a tenant deserves. The landlords feel that since you are a Section 8 tenant, you and your children deserve less in terms of quality of life and living conditions.
With the Section 8 voucher, 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 and it will always sadden me that I was unable to be there before he died and attend his funeral. Likewise, 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. Michael and I were able to attend her funeral, a very difficult day for us.
Carmilla and I
I, Michael Donley, 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, but 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 along 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 and 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 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 a 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.
But 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 that Carmilla’s voucher would be terminated. They claimed that she had not reported all of her income (Carmilla’s gross earnings for the year was $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
Around this time, we attended a meeting held at a home occupied 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 occupy a home. The next day, we found a vacant home in our neighborhood that was owned by a bank, and 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, but 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 the month of March 2013. During that time Carmilla and I continued the process of clearing out our new home. We spent our last $1,000 reclaiming the home with the help of housing activists and volunteers.
Carmilla and I along with our two youngest children Peter and Daniela lived in our home for more than two months, until April 29,, 2013 when a representative of IH2 or 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 the usual process wherein the Cook County Sheriff carries out an eviction, the Chicago Police were called and we were evicted at gun-point and locked out of our home on April 29th 2013. We were arrested and then released on an I-bond, without having to post bail.
We were arrested again on April 30, 2013, because we re-entered the home hoping to retrieve a SNAP benefit card and other items, which we were unable to find. This time our bonds were set at $10,000 and $5,000. My brother was able to bail me out just before the deadline when I would have had to spend the night; and the group Communities United bailed out Carmilla, who had to walk all the way from the police lockup on Belmont Avenue north to Rogers Park, without shoelaces since they’d been removed during the arrest.
After that, Carmilla and I along with our children and granddaughter were rendered homeless. And we lost our pets — fish, a turtle named Iyaka 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 America’s largest landlords, or slumlords.
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 the Cook County Assessor, we found that by the close of April 2014, Blackstone through its subsidiary “IH2 For Rent” or 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 to rent.
We noticed that IH2 had purchased more than 250 homes on the Northwest Side of Chicago, so 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. Since then, we have organized with community groups in the area and have organized 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 now been three years since Carmilla had her housing voucher terminated, which led to us and our two youngest children living in homelessness and separated from one another. Our youngest daughter is living in Minnesota separated from her own daughter – our eldest granddaughter — who 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 and attended college at Western Illinois University. Those were tough times for us all. Our son has since been able to get housing in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and has been living there since 2014.
Since being evicted from the Invitation Homes house, Carmilla and I have continued to be a family in spite of 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. For Carmilla and I have had to endure hunger, sleep deprivation, constant noise pollution and illness.
The struggles we have endured have made us better and have given us the opportunity to become community journalists and social justice activists. We founded the Peoples’ Institute For Housing Justice in August 2014, and we have built a Facebook community of friends and activist who believe as we do that it is only just and right that a fair society house all of its citizens.
We have survived homelessness, but it is not a solution. For the poor and low-wage earners, we need to have a safety net in place to ensure that no matter what happens in someone’s life, housing is always there as a safe haven and a place for family, economic security and prosperity.
Housing is a human right!!! A right that has been ignored for far too long.
Michael Donley and Carmilla Manzanet are social justice journalists, housing activists, researchers and co-founders of the People’s Institute For Housing Justice. They are both SJNN fellows for Cycle 3, focused on housing and homelessness. They have been researching the private equity and hedge fund The Blackstone Group and its subsidiaries, since being evicted in late April 2013 by Blackstone’s homes-for-rent subsidiary Invitation Homes. Their work has been featured in In These Times magazine, including the story of their experience occupying a foreclosed home and being evicted; and a collaborative investigation into Blackstone’s practices with Social Justice News Nexus Fellow Rebecca Burns.