Our nation is in a housing crisis that’s getting worse. We need action from our lawmakers now. That’s the message I traveled to Washington with People’s Action housing activists from all across the country to deliver.
My name is Linda Armitage, and I’m 76 years old. I live in a building run by the Chicago Housing Authority in Wrigleyville, just a block from Lake Michigan. It’s a nice neighborhood, and you’d think I’m one of the lucky ones – but that’s just part of my story.
I lost my life savings – every penny in my 401k – in the 2008 financial crisis. I had to find a cheaper place to live. The banks got bailed out, Wall Street got bailed out – everybody got bailed out, it seemed, except seniors like me – and others affected by the crisis. We had nowhere to turn.
I was fortunate to find an apartment in my building, which at the time was run by a charity, Presbyterian Homes. I was so relieved, because they promised us homes for life.
But a few years later, they decide to kick us every one ofus out. It didn’t matter if we were eighty, ninety years old. “You’re on your own, folks – go find another place, to live,” they told us. They needed the money from our buildings, they said, to improve their suburban campuses – where the residents aren’t poor, like us. Over there, you need six figures just to get on the waiting list – and you’ll pay 4 or 5 thousand a month in rent.
There’s only one problem. Where can we go?
We were panicked, traumatized – so we organized. I joined the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, and we sued the owners for breach of contract. Here we are, a bunch of seniors, who thought we’d left our activist days behind in the sixties and seventies, protesting in Evanston to save our homes.
We won – and the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to takeover our buildings. Once again, we were relieved – but we didn’t know life under the CHA wouldn’t be much better.
In the three and a half years since CHA took over our building, they’ve slowly but surely let things go, refusing to make repairs.It’s a kind of planned destruction – they deliberately let buildings go, and then say it’s too expensive to renovate, we have to knock it down – “Goodbye, people!”
But the CHA has the money to make repairs. Here in Chicago and across the country, public housing has been starved for money, deliberately – it’s not that it’s not there. CHA, a year ago, had a $400 million surplus. They’re supposed to be spending that money on repairs of housing in Chicago. That same thing is going on nationwide.
So my personal request to Sen. Corey Booker and the other lawmakers we met with is that they act now to repair the 1.2 million public housing units that need to be repaired – and that’s just repairs! It would takea lot more to fully address our housing crisis.
At the local level, we tend to think we’re alone, but we’re not. Another member of our group, Tommie Lewis, became homeless after she was diagnosed with cancer. She had a job – two, in fact – but still couldn’t afford her cancer treatments. Now, with her credit ruined, she can’t find an affordable place to live, either.
Ashley Bennett, from Los Angeles, became homeless as a youth when she and her mother fled their home to escape domestic violence. For seven years, She and her mother had to live with friends because they couldn’t find decent housing.
Hearing stories like mine, Tommie’s and Ashley’s opens your eyes to the fact that this is a nationwide crisis. And none of this should be happening in a country that has the resources and people that we have.
This crisis never should have arisen, but it’s a result of deliberate policies of racial discrimination, which we see so badly in Chicagoand other places, and the corporate stranglehold that Wall Street and the banks and corporations have had on Congress, local and state officials.
At present, there’s no commitment in our country to decent housing for people. Wherever you turn, it’s the same story: “You’re on your own, you have to save your money and then you can have a place to live.”
There’s no sense of urgency about people living on the streets – seniors like me and poor families – not having the resources to find a decent place to live.
I’m 76 years old, and I’m working for the seniors of the present, but I’m also working for the seniors of the future – because I don’t want to see others living like the seniors in Chicago do, being discriminated against, and having their buildings neglected.
We’ve got some great lawmakers in our corner – Senators Sanders, Warren and Booker have been champions on housing, and we know they’re with us. But the truth is, they’re all in a bubble up in Washington.
So as People’s Action member groups, if we truly care about the right to dignity in housing, we’ve got to break that bubble – get our lawmakers back to reality and get our country out of the clutches of this crazy, predatory capitalism we’re living in right now, where corporations write and pass their own bills in cities and in Congress.
Gentrification all over the country is directly a result of developers writing their own way, through cities and states. So one of the really important messages we brought to Washington is that we have to get away from this corporate stranglehold, where everything depends on Wall Street and big banks. None of this is new, but it’s there: now we’ve got to figure out, together, how to do what we need to do to make it right.