Cook County Human Rights Ordinance Victory for Housing Choice

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. is pleased to announce that the Cook County Board on May 8, 2013, voted to amend its fair housing ordinance to prohibit discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders, which we expect to open up opportunity to people of color and others with lower incomes throughout the county.  This is an important step to affirmatively further fair housing in the Chicago area and is a great, hard-fought victory. 

The Chicago metropolitan area remains one of the most racially segregated urban areas in the country. This shameful fact is true despite Chicago’s increasing diversity.  Nationally and locally, large public housing projects have been replaced by Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly called Section 8, which are federal subsidies for low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled.  These vouchers enable participants to rent quality housing in the private market.  It is essential that private landlords cooperate by renting to qualified tenants with vouchers.  This allows them to live in neighborhoods and towns previously inaccessible to them, while the owners are paid fair rent.  This has the great potential to break down segregation based on race, ethnicity, disability, and economic status, and to affirmatively further fair housing.

Unfortunately, families with Housing Choice Vouchers in the Chicago area have been primarily concentrated in segregated, high poverty neighborhoods and towns, known as low opportunity areas.  The City of Chicago has had an ordinance outlawing discrimination against voucher holders for a number of years.  The Chicago and new Cook County  ordinances do not require landlords to accept all applicants with vouchers, but only to decide whether to rent to them based on other qualifications such as landlord references, as well as treat them equally with other tenants after renting to them. The federal Fair Housing Act requires that government recipients of HUD funds including Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), such as counties and cities, use those funds to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, that is, take concrete action to break down segregation. 

The new provision will open up the county’s rental housing to low income tenants, allowing them more opportunities for success and self-sufficiency than are available in segregated, high poverty areas.  The Cook County Board’s decision to include Housing Choice Voucher holders as a protected class shows that the County is dedicated to affirmatively further fair housing and allowing equal opportunity for all.

Thanks to the sponsors of the bill, Commissioners Jesus Garcia, Larry Suffredin, and Robert Steele.  Thanks also to Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the other commissioners who voted in favor of it. 

The core advocate groups Open Communities, Metropolitan Tenants Organization, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Access Living, Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and CAFHA (Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance), working with our Cook County partners, along with many other sponsoring organizations and friends, made it possible.  Now on to education and enforcement.

The Fair Housing Project of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. educates people about their rights and duties under fair housing and fair lending laws, which prohibit discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, disability, familial status, sex, sexual orientation, source of income, and other bases in rental, sales, advertising, mortgage lending, and homeowners' insurance. Project staff members investigate discrimination complaints, and provide pro bono (free) legal representation to people who want to exercise their rights and secure equal housing opportunities.

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. protects and promotes civil rights by bringing the strength and prestige of the private bar to bear on the problems of poverty and discrimination. Founded in 1969, the Committee champions equal justice and community development for underrepresented people by partnering with volunteer lawyers to provide litigation and transactional representation.

- Betsy Shuman-Moore, Fair Housing Project Director

  Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc.