Part 1 of a 2-part Series Tracking ‘How Housing is Changing for Black Families in the Suburbs and Beyond’.
A “reverse migration” is underway in Chicago — but what are families finding on the other end?
Teresa Davis packed up her bags, boarded the Rock Island District Metra train with her kids and left Chicago bound for Joliet, a small, former manufacturing city 40 miles southwest of her family’s South Side home. Her three children, an infant, a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old, took the upheaval in stride, playing, sleeping and talking on the 2-hour ride through Chicago’s south suburbs and west, toward the Des Plaines River. Davis describes it as memorable bonding time for the family.
Davis had never been a resident of public housing while she lived in Chicago, but the foreclosure of her family home in Chatham and the birth of her third child left her in search of a stable and affordable environment for her family. She spent the first half of her pregnancy applying for affordable-housing openings in Illinois, eventually to be put on a 3-5-year waiting list in the Chicago Housing Authority. She was accepted, instead, for an apartment at Evergreen Terrace, a 356-unit, privately owned low-income housing complex on the western shore of the Des Plaines River in Joliet.
Davis’ 2001 move from the city can now be seen as part of a broader loss in population as Black families sought better job prospects, prosperity and safer streets outside of Chicago. Much has been made of Chicago’s Black exodus, but what about those families who left?
In many ways, Davis, now 35, embodies the trend — safety, education and employment were all factors in her move from Chicago. And the lure of affordable housing and dreams of homeownership ultimately drove her and her kids to Joliet — one that has her and her family caught in a holding pattern to this day.
Joliet offered stability and access to quality-of-life resources. But by the time Davis had arrived, Evergreen Terrace was already mired with crime, building code violations and residential deterioration, according to the Joliet Police Department, local media reports and a recent report from Joliet’s inspector general.
According to a 13-year study conducted between 2000-2013, Evergreen Terrace had a rate of violent crime more than three times the city average of five violent crimes per 1,000 people. But the start of Davis’ new life came at a turning point for the public housing complex. She didn’t know she was moving her family into a soon-to-be battleground in the fight for affordable housing
Councilman’s Bitter Battle
In the late 1990s, then-Joliet councilman Tim Brophy began a verbal campaign against Evergreen Terrace that would eventually lead to a costly takeover of the complex. “I believe Evergreen Terrace represents a cancer on the civic body of Joliet,” he wrote in an October 1999 memo. He proposed that Joliet “follow Chicago’s lead and tear down Evergreen Terrace.”
A year after Davis’ arrival, Brophy drew a line between Joliet residents while allegedly speaking with members of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He spoke of the “rats from the Robert Taylor homes,” a reference to one of Chicago’s former public housing projects on the South Side, according to news reports and a lawsuit. In his scenario, the rats were newcomers, folks like Davis — particularly people moving from Chicago to towns like Joliet.
“I grew up around residential, beautiful homes and generations of family. My teacher was the same teacher my mother had. I mean, I just didn’t grow up in public housing. I had no exposure to those stigmas — the idea that somebody looked at me and thought that I just had to ‘escape those projects and run out here’ — that’s just not the situation. First of all, it’s false and it’s offensive,” Davis said, still visibly moved by the comments nearly 16 years later.
Local perceptions of Evergreen Terrace don’t square with the words and experiences of those who live there, according to Davis and several testimonies at Joliet City Council meetings. One resident, identified only as “Shante” summed up the feelings of many of her neighbors.
“A lot of the comments made about Chicago are the reasons I’m out here,” the single, disabled mother of two told council members on a video dated July 2015. “The opportunity to have low-income housing . . . to me this was a blessing in disguise. I got out here to work and build a better place for my children.”
Shante maintained there were positives among the less-than-adequate conditions. “We do food pantries, we look out for our neighbors,” she told the council. “I have never witnessed Evergreen being a danger to anyone.”
But plans for Evergreen Terrace were already in motion. Beginning with Brophy’s statements, Joliet’s City Council embarked on a contentious takeover of the privately owned building through eminent domain. City lawyers argued that it was derelict and crime-ridden to the point where demolition was the safest outcome for all those involved. In a 2005 lawsuit, Director of Housing Justice at Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law Kate Walz argued that the takeover attempt violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Black residents and families with children. The 2014 settlement of that lawsuit will preserve the tenants’ affordable housing and provide them with affordable housing choices for the next 20 years.
In total, the city of Joliet has paid a net cost of more than $21 million in its attempt to gain control of Evergreen Terrace, according to a scathing 29-page assessment laid out by Joliet’s inspector general. In addition to the $6 million spent on lawyer fees, expert witnesses, consulting contracts, site appraisals, travel expenses and other legal fees during litigation over Evergreen Terrace, Joliet has paid $15 million to purchase the building. For comparison, the city paid around the same amount for garbage disposal, community development and culture/recreation costs in 2015.
“I don’t think Joliet residents generally understand how they are or will be affected by the amount of money the city is spending, or has spent, to try to obtain this property,” Davis said. “People who understand it, like me, feel like it’s got to be personal — because who is trying to spend this much money? This has got to be someone’s personal agenda.”
The city’s inspector general agreed, to a degree. The battle over Evergreen Terrace was beset with “a lack of any coherent vision” on the part of the city and allegations of discriminatory housing practices bolstered by the local media, his report read. Those allegations were rooted in comments made by city officials that “strayed from the facts and ventured into pejorative characterizations of the complex and, at times, its residents,” the report continued. In the end, they were “unnecessary, inflammatory, and damaging to the City of Joliet.”
The “rats from the Robert Taylor homes” and Evergreen Terrace’s “cancer on the civic body of Joliet” wasn’t simply a statement made by a city official, it was a perspective routinely echoed by local media reports and repeated by Joliet residents opposed to new public housing.
Joliet Allowed to Demolish
In June 2016, after 100 court days spread over a year and a half and millions of dollars spent, a judge ruled on appeal that the city of Joliet will be allowed to possess and demolish Evergreen Terrace. If statements from Joliet City Council members and a new 50-50 partnership agreement between a Chicago-based developer and the city called Riverwalk Homes LLC is any indication, the city eventually plans to create a riverwalk-themed development along the Des Plaines River where the complex currently sits, though sources involved with the eminent domain takeover say an appeal on behalf of Evergreen Terrace’s owners is awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.
Stigma of Public Housing
In Illinois, Brophy’s statements condemning public housing residents aren’t an isolated case. In the years since, the same sentiment can be found in towns surrounding Chicago — areas that have seen a rise in residents of color in recent decades as the white population of those same areas has declined. Housing-reform advocates say those attitudes are based on the mistaken notion that new residents of color are largely public housing residents — and that public housing developments draw a drain on the local economy.
“The assumption is that these families are bringing dysfunction,” said Dr. Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, vice president and executive director of the Research and Policy Center at the Urban League. “Then you see things like crime-free organizations, exclusionary zoning, or other kinds of policies and practices that make it harder for people to develop [new] housing units, or make it harder for families to take housing choice vouchers [and] Section Eight vouchers.”
The result, according to Bechteler, is that new residents of color are often stigmatized upon arrival, a stigma that perpetuates poverty and widening income gaps.
Walz poses a more troubling theory: as Illinois communities struggle under increasing economic pressures, residents of color, especially immigrant populations and those living in public housing, become scapegoats for an overall decline — one in which they’re made to be fodder for racially motivated, costly and discriminatory policies.
In Joliet, pressures have been mounting. In 2001, unemployment in the city was 7.7 percent but, by 2010, that figure had doubled to a 16-year peak before settling back at 7.2 percent in 2016. And while violent crime is on the decline, criminal sexual assault and burglary are on the rise with a string of heroin busts making headlines in local news reports. Residents say recent ongoing foreclosures have also left swaths of the city in a cycle of depopulation.
At the same time, a recurring idea parallels political maneuvers and policy aimed at reducing or eliminating local public housing in towns across Illinois — the notion that an influx of Chicago public housing residents is moving in, and only the reduction of public housing can stem the flow.
Davis has lived at Evergreen Terrace nearly as long as she lived in Chicago. Her two youngest children, ages 10 and 16, don’t remember life in the state’s largest metropolis — they consider themselves Joliet natives along with their elementary, middle and high school friends — a rather diverse mix of races and ethnicities, according to Davis.
Davis doesn’t know if her kids will need to transfer to a new school. She doesn’t know where the family will relocate to if Evergreen Terrace closes as planned.
“I can say I’m from Chicago, but [Joliet] is it for them,” Davis explained. “I’ve raised my family here; for my children, this is all they know.”
Today, federal budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a lack of planning on the part of Evergreen Terrace’s new owners could mean further delay at the complex for the approximately 800 residents. Davis described city takeover of Evergreen Terrace as a “waiting game” for residents who don’t know when they’ll be forced out of their home or relocated to new affordable housing in Joliet.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, himself a former Joliet City Councilman and police patrolman at Evergreen Terrace, offered a blunt criticism of the takeover to the Herald-News, highlighting the uncertainty on both ends. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he said.
For Black residents, the creation of residential barriers in the suburbs has continued to make it harder to find new affordable developments in “areas of opportunity,” according to Bechteler.
“I do think these barriers are being put in place and, really, in this day and age the most effective place that we do that is through ordinances or through exclusionary practices that make it tough to create and build affordable or stable housing for lower-income families,” she said.
“I don’t think those are new attitudes and I don’t think that they’re new assumptions. I think that’s the narrative that has long been tied to low-income [residents], particularly low-income Black families,” she continued. “My gut assumption is that municipalities that were expecting to see an increase in the number of families moving to their area just braced themselves for the realization of these assumptions to come true.”
Part 2: How three Illinois suburbs are bracing for the impact of a more diverse community.
This project was supported by the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.