As Ed Bland arrived at work on Wednesday morning, July 27, 2011, he was greeted by a group of protesters. Residents at two public housing units, Dunbar Court and Joann Dorsey Homes, stood outside of the offices of the Champaign County Housing Authority calling on Bland, the executive director, to answer their questions. They chanted, “Mr. Bland, What’s Your Plan?” The coming demolition of Dunbar and Dorsey signals the end of traditional public housing in Champaign-Urbana.
As early as September, more than 20 families at Dunbar Court will have to leave their homes. The city of Champaign is making space for the new Booker T. Washington elementary school, which has doubled in size as a result of the demands of the “consent decree” to bring racial equity in Champaign’s Unit 4 schools. The Dunbar community is located just to the east of BTW elementary in the Douglass Park neighborhood. The public housing units at Dunbar will be replaced by mixed-income homes built by a private contractor and which residents will pay for with Section 8 vouchers. In October, another 60 residents at Dorsey, located on the northwest corner of Bradley and McKinley, are expected to be out of their homes which will also be bulldozed and replaced by a private contractor.
For several months, members of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice and the Planners Network at UIUC have been collecting information and talking with residents at Dunbar and Dorsey. At Dunbar, Ruby Taylor is a longtime local activist who has been organizing residents. At Dorsey, Margaret Neil runs a community center and is a member of the housing authority board. They have teamed up to mobilize neighbors at the two residencies.
Residents in Dunbar and Dorsey currently have their rent fully paid for, as well as water and electricity bills. They have been offered Section 8 vouchers which many of them were initially satisfied with. Section 8 vouchers will cover roughly two-thirds of the rent. A monthly check from the housing authority is sent directly to a private landlord renting to somebody in the program. For those without work, Section 8 will cover 95% of the rent. Yet Section 8 recipients also have to pay utilities. For many, these additional expenses cannot be met. It can be expected that some families will be left homeless. Residents at Dunbar and Dorsey began to question the deal they were being offered.
Margaret Neil said that residents received vouchers a month ago, but less than 10 people had found housing. Residents claim they have been discriminated against by landlords who did not want to take their Section 8 vouchers.
Neil and Taylor delivered a letter to the front desk at the housing authority that read:
To the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners,
Since receiving housing vouchers in June 2011, we have experienced numerous rejections from Champaign-Urbana landlords supposedly on the Section 8 property list. In some cases, we have found viable housing only to have the HACC Section 8 department deny approval. With the clock ticking before demolition of our residences, we are confused, angry, and frustrated!
According to Mr. Bland, there are thousands of Section 8 units available in Champaign County; however, few of us have had success securing them for our families. We believe HACC’s Section 8 list to be inaccurate and outdated. We believe our current voucher amounts and the utility requirement enforced by HACC make for a payment standard that is too low in this economy and rental market. We further believe we are being discriminated against for prior renters’ histories and the image of public housing residents, and that the moving possibilities that this displacement process affords have been highly misrepresented.
Because of these issues and other outlying questions, we demand the following:
1) Respect and equal treatment
2) One central meeting for Joann Dorsey and Dunbar Court residents TOGETHER to be held at the HACC office or other reasonable location
3) An updated, accurate Section 8 list
4) More transparency in the voucher and rental approval process
5) An increase in our Section 8 voucher standards and a freeze on new Section 8 vouchers until Dorsey and Dunbar residents are housed
We want to see these demands discussed before the Board and taken seriously.
Outside of the housing authority, Neil spoke to the media. Asked what the residents are going to do in October when they are forced to move out, she said, “We’re going to stay put.”
Neil put the housing issue in the context of a failing economy. “Residents are willing to work, but there are no jobs. Or they are service jobs. You can work at McDonald’s, but maybe you are only given ten hours a week.”
Contrary to common assumptions about public housing residents is the story of Tanya Richardson who showed up for the protest. She spent the break at her job to come down and stand with her neighbors. She works in a kitchen at a retirement center in Urbana. Living at Dorsey since 2006, she is the mother of five children and is uncertain what she is going to do in the future. “It’s stressful,” she said.
According to Ruby Taylor, residents at Dunbar received a letter saying that they must register their cars with the Unit 4 school district. It is feared that this move to protect the new BTW school will bring increased surveillance of their community. If the cars of friends or family members are not registered, it is suspected they will be towed.
Local African American landlord, Antwuan Neely, who rents to several Section 8 recipients, also showed up at the protest and talked to reporters. He noted that a decision by the housing authority board in June 2010 placed the payment standard to $200-300 under the market rate. If landlords were turning away Section 8 recipients, he said, it was due to the lack of cooperation from the housing authority. “Their customer service is terrible,” he said.
Amidst growing concerns, the housing authority has canceled its last four board meetings. The housing authority is “failing to have good communication,” Neil said. “They promised us they would help us, not just give us a list.”
Executive director Ed Bland visited Neil at her home and told her that the payment standard would be increased. The residents of Dunbar and Dorsey were shown that public pressure works!