The 'suburban lifestyle dream' we all deserve

  • Richard Monocchio, Toni Preckwinkle

    Richard Monocchio, Toni Preckwinkle

  • Toni Preckwinkle

    Toni Preckwinkle

 
By Toni Preckwinkle and Richard Monocchio
Guest columnists
Updated 8/31/2020 1:47 PM

When Pamela Mitchell turned the key to the front door of her new home, she looked to her 9-year-old daughter and said, "Pinch me."

After years of searching for a home that would accept her Housing Choice Voucher (HCV -- formerly known as Section 8) in North suburban Cook County, she had finally moved to an idyllic neighborhood in Northwest Schaumburg. She was grateful to say goodbye to her hour-and-a-half commute to work, and to her worries about her children falling victim to violence on her old block.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Despite her relief, Pamela recognized the challenges she faced along the way to finding a home. She had to contend with a series of roadblocks designed to keep low-income families like hers out of the neighborhood. From a lack of available, affordable units to burdensome application fees to illegal discrimination tactics ("we don't take Section 8" was a phrase she heard often), Pamela says she felt like the odds were stacked against her. It wasn't until she reached out to the Housing Authority of Cook County for support in the form of counseling and financial assistance that she felt the tide turn.

Thanks to special programs designed to foster fair housing choice, Pamela was able to realize her dream of a new home. Her story embodies the efforts of HACC and Cook County as we work to provide access to communities historically seen as "off-limits" by low-income households -- communities with good schools, jobs and health care options.

While we're becoming more familiar with success stories like Pamela's, its conclusion is one that is still too rare in Cook County. The more common stories point to a reality that many people have failed, or refused, to fully recognize: segregation by race and class persists in the county we all call home, and we must act affirmatively if we hope for change.

At Cook County, we see this recognition as a moral responsibility, but it is also a legal obligation under the "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" mandate included in the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This landmark piece of legislation makes working to ensure that all families have access to decent housing free from discrimination a legal responsibility of all public housing authorities and local jurisdictions throughout the country.

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This mandate is at the heart of the law. And it is under attack.

President Trump tweeted recently, "I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood ... Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!"

As has been proven time and again, President Trump has the facts wrong. The clichéd image of white picket fences, manicured lawns, and upwardly mobile professionals is no longer representative of suburbia in America. Though ritzy, exclusive suburbs still exist in pockets, the number of poor Americans living in suburbs now exceeds the number living in cities. Poverty in suburban Cook County has jumped 93% since 2000, far more than Chicago.

Moreover, the president is in desperate need of some tutoring regarding a subject in which he claims to be an expert -- the real estate market. Despite his claim, it is factually verifiable that suburban homeowners are not financially harmed by the construction of new affordable housing. On average, it has been proven not to lower property values, and in fact sometimes raises them.

While the facts connected to the president's statement may be muddied, his overarching, racist message shines through clearly: people who live in affordable housing are undesirable. They will "bother" or "hurt" their neighbors, and suburban residents should want to keep them out of their communities. Now, according to the president, middle- and upper-class white suburbanites can stop worrying about their communities being overrun by black and brown residents living in poverty.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At Cook County, we know this not to be the case and will always stand on the side of the most vulnerable. We stand in strong opposition to rescinding the AFFH rule, will continue our work in fostering fair housing choice and urge other suburban elected officials to also stand on the side of the low-income households we serve.

Long ago, the Supreme Court decided that "separate but equal" could never truly be equal. Nowhere is this principle more important than in the communities we choose to call home. Diverse communities are not something to be feared. They produce robust regional economies, foster cross-cultural understanding and have even been shown to enhance children's educational experiences.

Our federal government should not stoke fears about integration rooted in racism. Instead, it should affirm the rights of all Americans to live where they choose. We're calling for a re-imagining of the "Suburban Lifestyle Dream" -- one where everyone has access, and anyone can belong.

• Toni Preckwinkle is Cook County Board president. Richard Monocchio is executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County.

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