When I came to take a photograph of Willie J.R. Fleming, the co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, he could hardly spare a moment between back-to-back phone calls with some of Chicago’s most influential power brokers.
While on the phone with the Chief of Staff for Cook County Commissioner Bill Lowry (3rd), his voice reverberated throughout the Campaign’s South Shore Office. His message during the phone call, and in the many that succeeded it, was clear: The Anti-Eviction Campaign would not accept funding from moneygrubbing NGOs.
The Campaign’s progressive ethos was developed in Cabrini-Green, the former public housing complex where many of the founding members came of age.
“The work we do today is based off of the foundation we laid at Cabrini-Green,” Fleming said. “We were faced with imminent evictions and displacement.”
By 2011, the Chicago Housing Authority had nearly razed all of Chicago’s public housing monoliths, including much of Cabrini-Green. The demolitions were part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation, which was launched in 2000 and sought to rebuild or rehabilitate Chicago’s public housing. The plan demolished 18,000 public housing units and displaced nearly 16,800 families.
“People at Cabrini went from having a currency exchange, a chicken place, an affordable place for their kids, everything to their whole community being wiped out,” said Kelli Dudley, a Chicago lawyer who provides pro bono work for the Campaign. “It flooded the real estate market with people that couldn’t afford market rent housing.”
According to Dudley, many of Chicago’s former public housing residents relocated to suburbs and towns as far away as Valparaiso, Indiana.
At the same time, the 2008 recession was ripping the fabric of Chicago’s housing market. Over 130,000 properties were foreclosed in Cook County alone between 2008 and 2010, with roughly 14,000 people in Illinois experiencing homelessness during those years.
A lot of people needed homes; a lot of homes needed people.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Fleming and other residents of Cabrini-Green devised a plan to ameliorate Chicago’s housing problem: fix up vacant properties and move in people experiencing homelessness. The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign was born.
“Rats, roaches and raccoons could live rent-free, but not a human being,” Fleming said. “That’s just crazy.”
More than 10 years later, the Campaign still transforms vacant properties for families experiencing homelessness. Partnerships with the Cook County Land Bank, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have allowed the Campaign to streamline and expand its housing initiatives. Its Hood for Humanity program seeks to house ex-offenders and victims of domestic violence. Fleming estimates that the Campaign has housed 50-75 people since its founding.
Ananka Shony, co-director of the Campaign with Fleming, is one of the many beneficiaries of the Campaign’s efforts.
“I ended up in a bad living situation,” Shony, a longtime Chicago resident, said. “I didn’t want to step on the toes of what [the Campaign] was doing, put my own personal issues first, but J.R. was like ‘hey, we take care of our own.’”
One would never guess that Shony’s South Shore home was once abandoned and dilapidated before the Campaign began its renovations in May 2020. The cozy house is complete with a top-floor studio for Shony’s textile arts, a funky backyard patio and a new HVAC system.
To build Shony’s home, the campaign paired a team of experienced carpenters with at-risk youth. This collaborative model, which the Campaign utilizes for most of its projects, employs young people and gives them carpentry and construction skills for future employment.
Many of the Campaign’s young builders lack transportation or fear gang violence in nearby areas, so the campaign provides them with free rides to and from the sites. The Campaign also works with lawyers to expunge criminal records for those who have them, which is crucial because even a minor offense can preclude one from future employment.
“I learned a lot working for the Campaign,” said Willie Macintosh, one of the Campaign’s builders — and Fleming’s son. “I learned how to paint, lay floors, hang doors. A lot of stuff I’m proud of doing that I can hopefully make a career out of.”
The Campaign found success in its holistic approach to housing activism. By targeting urban blight, educating and employing at-risk youth, helping new tenants apply for jobs or go back to school, and lobbying for progressive legislation, the Campaign is tackling Chicago’s housing problem at all its roots.
But Chicago still suffers from a dearth of affordable housing, which particularly affects predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. These areas suffer higher foreclosure, poverty and vacancy rates than Chicago’s primarily-white, affluent North Side.
This discrepancy is no coincidence.
Redlining in the 1930s prohibited residents in primarily-Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides from receiving federally backed loans. As a result, residents of North-Side neighborhoods accumulated wealth through owning high-end properties while the city divested from its South and West Sides. In the mid-20th century, major employers including Western Electric plant in North Lawndale and the General Mills cereal plant on the South Side closed, leaving hourly wage earners and residents without work. Schools declined, violence and drug use soared, and poverty and blight blanketed neighborhoods mere miles from Chicago’s glittering Mag Mile.
“Divestment took money out of communities, and if you start taking money out of those communities, the people who are living there don’t have the resources to invest in their properties and maintain them,” said Spencer Cowan, director of research at the Woodstock Institute. “They don’t have the money to invest in business. So, it feeds on itself.”
Though redlining is no longer codified into law, a recent WBEZ/City Bureau investigation revealed that banks still lend significantly less to Black residents on the South and West Sides, thus limiting their potential to accumulate capital and control property.
“Swaths of history come down to white flight,” Dudley said. “There are still subtle and not-so-subtle violations of the Fair Housing Act.”
The 2008 housing crisis exposed these disparities in barefaced actualities. From 2008 to 2010, foreclosures peaked in nearly every Chicago neighborhood. But according to data provided by the Woodstock Institute, many North Side neighborhoods have recovered, while South and West Side neighborhoods continue to bounce back at slower rates. Lakeview, an affluent North-Side neighborhood, experienced 338 foreclosures in 2010 and only 53 in 2018 — an 84% decrease. Roseland, a primarily Black South-Side neighborhood, suffered 530 foreclosures in 2010 and 269 in 2018 — only a 49% decrease.
Unemployment data suggests that Chicago is facing another foreclosure crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Chicago’s unemployment rate jumped from 5% in 2007 to 12.2% in 2010. But these statistics pale in comparison to the 2020 spike that saw unemployment rise from 4.5% in March to 17.3% in April.
“We’re facing a crisis like no other,” Fleming said of evictions looming under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s current moratorium, which has been extended multiple times since its enactment March 14. “You can’t extend your way out of this one.”
Dudley said that before the pandemic, many Chicago residents funneled most of their income toward housing. But with such a high unemployment rate, many people are relying on the eviction moratorium and the altruism of landlords to remain in their homes. Once these residents are evicted, landlords will struggle to find tenants who can afford market rate housing, she said.
Henry Warfield, the Campaign’s chief financial officer and a former Cabrini-Green resident, said the Campaign is preparing for a crisis by educating tenants on their rights. Often, people facing foreclosure cannot pay for an attorney and are taken advantage of in court, he said.
“People who can’t afford attorneys are in a courtroom, and the judge is talking in law lingo – it’s not an even playing field,” he said. “That’s where [the Campaign] comes in. We help these tenants have a better understanding of what they’re facing.”
In addition to educating tenants, the Campaign is advocating for a complete overhaul of Chicago’s housing landscape.
“I think we need to have a complete resetting of debts, which may include the banks having to eat some of the alleged mortgages that are out there,” Dudley said. She also suggested implementing a universal public income and extending welfare services to higher income echelons.
Dudley’s progressive suggestions, along with the Campaign’s radical ethos, align with Fleming’s belief that housing is a human right.
“This is not a housing crisis,” Fleming said. “This is a human rights crisis that is going to challenge and check the moral responsibility of the people, the private sector and the government.”
Cover image: A vacant property in Bronzeville/Kira Leadholm for Redacted Magazine
Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.