How Evelyn Sanguinetti plans to fight for fair housing in the suburbs
She's best-known across Illinois as the former lieutenant governor to Gov. Bruce Rauner. She's a former Wheaton City Council member and briefly was a candidate for U.S. House in the 6th District.
But now Evelyn Sanguinetti is returning to her roots as a lawyer by leading HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton as its executive director.
Sanguinetti, 49, started her new position June 15 with the mission of promoting fair housing and stopping housing discrimination. She said she can "effectuate more change as HOPE's executive director" at this time than she could by staying in the political realm.
The small nonprofit organization she now leads has six staff members who test whether discrimination is occurring against people protected by the federal Fair Housing Act; advocate and educate against discrimination; file lawsuits to enforce fair housing laws; and use proceeds from lawsuit settlements to fuel the rest of their efforts.
The Daily Herald recently connected with Sanguinetti to learn more about her new role and how she will work to protect people in DuPage County, Kane County and 28 other counties across northern Illinois from housing discrimination. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: How did you come to be the executive director of HOPE Fair Housing?
A: When I started at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, I found out about clinics you could join as a law student, as long as you got a provisional license to practice law. I thought the fair housing clinic was interesting. I said, 'What's this fair housing stuff?' I was told it works to fight against housing discrimination.
I was baffled that housing discrimination still occurred. We need to have a place to live, no matter what color you are, what your background is. I thought to myself, 'This is what I want to do.' My then-boyfriend, now husband, and I -- we met in law school -- joined the clinic. We handled cases. We did intake for victims of discrimination and then we took it to court.
I come from a family of immigrants and refugees. And to us, living the American dream is having housing; and being able to buy a home -- that means you've achieved it. That's where my love of fair housing dates back to, and my commitment to it. When I found out I was going to transition from being lieutenant governor to doing something else, I wanted to do something where I could pay it forward and continue to help.
Q: What do you enjoy most about fair housing work?
A: I love being able to help and being able to educate about what fair housing means. Simply put, there's a reason behind fair housing laws: We all need a place to live. Fair housing is a human right, and as much as people try to politicize it, I always try to steer them away from that because it's a human right.
Q: What does fair housing mean? And how does housing discrimination play out these days?
A: There's always this conclusion that goes on with a lot of people like, 'Fair housing? Free housing! That's cool.' And I'm thinking, 'No, no.' The Fair Housing Act provides that if you have the resources to live where you want but you're being prevented from doing so because you're a member of a protected class, that's illegal.
People can be in a protected class based on these factors: race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, familial status (presence of children younger than 18), marital status, age (people older than 40), military status, unfavorable military discharge and order of protection status.
Discrimination takes so many different forms. It's not as apparent as it once was decades ago. The wrongdoers have become better at this sort of illegal activity. You will see it taking the form of lying about the availability of housing or home loans or home insurance, or applying a no-pets policy on service animals. You will see discrimination in the way of illegal steering. So when a prospective tenant wants to look at one apartment, the company showing the apartments says, "No, no, you really want to look a few blocks over; that's where you really want to go." A lot of people do not know their rights and they do not realize that this is what's occurring. Another form it takes is offering different terms or conditions to members of a protected class, such as requiring sex in exchange for rent.
You see discrimination in the form of constructing inaccessible buildings. A lot of the cases we have pending and a lot of the work we do from a previous settlement, is making improvements to make housing accessible to people with disabilities.
Another form of discrimination is saying, "No children allowed," which to me is like a stake straight at my heart. I grew up with my abuelita, my great-grandparents. I mean, there were a lot of us in one household and a lot of children. But the wrongdoers also find a way of making sure children are not allowed. Well, children need to live somewhere.
Q: You said fair housing law is about ensuring anyone who has the resources can live where they want. But what about people who don't have the resources?
A: The purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to ensure that all people have equal housing opportunities, regardless of their membership in a protected class. It's not about giving away "free housing," it's about making sure that, for example, if I go to rent an apartment that I'm qualified for, I don't get turned away because I'm Latina.
The lack of resources is a separate topic, but one that is still incredibly important. Part of this is addressing the stigma against those who do rely on programs such as Section 8 Housing Vouchers. Some areas, such as Cook County and Naperville, have Source of Income protections, which prevent housing providers from discriminating against tenants who receive government assistance, whether that be social security, disability income or housing vouchers. This protection needs to be implemented across the state. We have seen far too many families who have housing vouchers be unable to find a place to live because of landlords refusing to rent to them based solely on their voucher status.
We currently lack a supply of affordable housing in America. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported a shortage of 7 million affordable homes for the lowest-income renters. It's estimated that somewhere between one and four and one and five Americans who are eligible for federal rental assistance actually receive it. We're looming on an eviction crisis and need to see expanded resources available for those who need it the most.
Q: How are the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement affecting HOPE Fair Housing's work?
A: With the pandemic, we are getting more intake calls. Just because COVID-19 is going on doesn't mean that the need was put on pause. During COVID-19, you also saw the curtains open up, where you could see a lot of the things that are going on with our underserved populations, not just in the area of housing, but you're also seeing that our Black and Brown populations are not receiving access to the sort of world-class health care that others are. I think with COVID-19, that's become more apparent.
But on the heels of the George Floyd tragedy, there is a huge call to learn more about fair housing. Realtors and other organizations are calling, wanting to find out more and wanting to do good. That gives me hope for the goodness of humanity and people wanting to do the right thing. People want to obey the law, particularly now when the issue of race relations is so front-and-center.
Protections for renters are especially relevant during this COVID-19 pandemic, where so many individuals and families have lost their main source of income or seen it severely reduced. Columbia University reported back in May that we could see a 40% to 45% increase in homelessness this year because of mass unemployment; 32% of Americans missed their July housing payments and 24 million Americans have reported little to no confidence in being able to pay their August rent. We need stronger relief programs for not only renters, but for housing providers and homeowners if we want to prevent a national surge in homelessness.
Q: What are your thoughts on the decision of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ending the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations? Would former Vice President Joe Biden's proposal to strengthen the regulations "destroy" the suburbs, as President Donald Trump has stated?
A: The National Fair Housing Alliance, which HOPE is member of, put out a statement on the topic before the change was made that summarizes the overall sentiments best. The statement says, in part: "Despite the clear evidence that residential segregation and racially concentrated poverty harms communities and children, the proposed rule brazenly abandons the goals of the Fair Housing Act. Simply put, the proposed rule is not a fair housing rule. Instead, the proposal reflects an endorsement of the residential segregation that has plagued the nation since its inception."
Here at HOPE, we believe that more must be done across Illinois -- and the country -- to undo decades of national and local discriminatory policies and practices that resulted in under-resourced communities and racial segregation. All residents benefit from diverse and inclusive communities. We must continue to push to rectify the decades of systematic discrimination that still impact our communities. These efforts are especially relevant today as the same marginalized families that were for generations disenfranchised and disregarded, are now disproportionately suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: HOPE Fair Housing recently received a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. What does the grant fund?
A: We received roughly $360,000 that will go to the efforts of the things that we do so well here at HOPE Fair Housing. It has to do with education and outreach to fight discrimination. We are just ecstatic to receive it because it doesn't happen to every fair housing organization. But as one of the stronger ones -- if not the strongest in Illinois -- we're going to put that money to work.
Q: What's next for Hope Fair Housing?
A: Our service area is quite large and there's a lot of need. I happened to see that firsthand when I was lieutenant governor because I headed the state's rural affairs council. Access to fair housing opportunities is seldom in some places in Illinois, so being able to help people in those areas is very important. My goal is growing the organization so that we can help the underserved in those areas because at this point, we're very far away. I want to be boots-on-the-ground in rural northern Illinois, so stay tuned because that's my dream for this organization.
I plan to grow our testing arm and also the outreach, education and enforcement. But the only way we do it is through the money we receive from enforcement, lawsuits and grants. Federal grants are never guaranteed, so my position here is to find other sources of revenue. I will do so. Having been an elected official for a few years, I know how to raise money and I know how to make the ask and I know how to reach out to people. HOPE Fair Housing has a beautiful story. How could you not get behind a human right like fair housing? I want it to rain money so we can do good for mankind and achieve fair housing for everyone.