I’m writing this sitting in my kitchen, at a table for two my husband inherited from his grandmother. We have a small house in Murphysboro, in southern Illinois, and we have made it our own. I especially love it this time of year. Stockings hang from the fireplace mantel near the tree, which is decorated with an eclectic collection of ornaments we both brought to our marriage.
My dog is staring at me, wondering if he can have some of my toast. I’m wearing fuzzy slippers and drinking hot tea. There’s a light dusting of snow outside, but it’s warm in here. This is my home. It’s a place that feels safe. I spend a lot of time thinking about my home and how where we live becomes part of who we are. Where we live determines the air we breathe, where children go to school and the people we are surrounded by. Whether renting or owning, where people live has a profound impact on their quality of life.
For many low-income families, a safe, decent home is out of reach. That’s why I’ve spent so much time reporting on low-income housing.
Last week, I wrote about residents of the Taft Homes in Peoria, who’ve lived for years in unsafe conditions as promises their apartments would be redeveloped were repeatedly dashed. And this week, I looked at a privately run complex in Chicago that had been taken over with great fanfare two decades ago but which has fallen into disrepair.
These stories followed reporting on Illinois housing issues from 2018, when I examined the fallout of a public housing crisis in Cairo, at the state’s southern border, and found that poor conditions and financial mismanagement in East St. Louis persisted despite a federal takeover of that city’s housing authority that spanned more than 30 years.
There is not a single city in Illinois where a person can afford a two-bedroom rental on a minimum wage job, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an organization that advocates for housing solutions for people living in deep poverty. A great deal of the affordable housing options that do exist are in neighborhoods without basic amenities like grocery stores or access to transportation.
Housing policies and practices have the ability to help achieve great things: to ensure every child has a warm, safe place to sleep; to alleviate homelessness; to integrate neighborhoods; to diversify schools. But for decades in Illinois — and many other states — cities have weaponized housing policies to perpetuate segregation and to exclude people from neighborhoods and schools.
In Illinois, some 440,000 people live in homes that receive federal subsidies to offset rental costs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research and policy institute focused on poverty related issues. In some federally subsidized housing, conditions have been allowed to deteriorate. The problems can be so extreme they make people sick — especially children, seniors and people with disabilities.
I started reporting on this issue in 2015, when the public housing crisis emerged in Cairo. In 2018, I was part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. Through that partnership, we explored federal and local oversight failures that contributed to poor conditions for families in small and midsized cities across the country.
I’ve logged hundreds of miles on my Jeep traveling to various cities and knocking on doors. I’m touched by the number of people who have invited me into their lives, to talk to me about what’s working — and what isn’t — in their homes and neighborhoods. Every year, I’ve learned more about this topic and, with each story, I have come to realize just how intricately linked housing is to other issues such as health and access to quality education — and how little these connections are understood. I’m going to continue to follow housing issues in Illinois and throughout the Midwest, so please reach out to me with story ideas or thoughts to share.
In the meantime, here’s a look at some of our work on this topic:
- In Small-Town America, the Public Housing Crisis Nobody’s Talking About. The shuttering of public housing complexes in two small Midwestern towns raises big questions for residents, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Congress.
- HUD Long Neglected These Residents. Now As They Move Out, Some Feel HUD Let Them Down Again. A scramble for housing in southern Illinois has exposed mixed messages and false hope. “It’s betrayal, really,” one resident said of the way she’s been treated by HUD.
- “Pretty Much a Failure”: HUD Inspections Pass Dangerous Apartments Filled With Rats, Roaches and Toxic Mold. The system for inspecting federally subsidized properties is failing low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities and undermining the agency’s oversight, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica have found.
- Ben Carson Declared Mission Accomplished in East St. Louis — Where Public Housing is Still a Disaster. The HUD secretary came to town in 2017 and declared residents were no longer at risk, three decades after the federal government took over public housing here. In fact, the complexes are falling apart and a woman was killed in the weeks before his visit.
- Trump Called Baltimore “Vermin Infested” While the Federal Government Fails to Clean Up Rodents in Subsidized Housing. Baltimore’s public housing is among the most dilapidated and dangerous in the country; nearly half of its complexes failed inspection.
- HUD Took Over a Town’s Housing Authority 22 Years Ago. Now The Authority’s Broke and Residents Are Being Pushed Out. In 2017, HUD had told officials in Wellston, Missouri, that they would get their local housing authority back. Then federal officials changed their minds. Wellston will join a growing list of HUD oversight failures, including the Illinois cities of East St. Louis and Cairo.
You can read the rest of the housing stories I’ve done here.