“Ensuring the Same for All”: Rabbi Bruce Elder on the Importance of Affordable Housing

On Friday, July 29, 2011 leaders from JCUA joined some 160 other representatives of organizations that are part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable at the White House for a policy briefing to exchange ideas on housing, healthcare, food justice and education. Below are two stories Rabbi Bruce Elder, JCUA’s new board president, shared on the importance of affordable housing.

Rabbi Bruce Elder (left) speaking to HUD leaders on the importance of affordable housing

Chicago, like most cities across the country, is in the midst of a housing crisis.  In 2011, a minimum-wage earner has to work 95 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago metropolitan area, or more than two full-time jobs.

With this in mind, I want to share two stories:  One exemplifies the problem low-income people and communities are currently facing, and the second demonstrates an effective strategy to solve the dire need for affordable housing.

Lathrop Homes on Chicago’s northwest side is a 900-unit development with 730 current vacancies — a shocking fact considering that over 200,000 families applied for affordable housing when the Chicago Housing Authority opened up the waiting list last year.  Why all these vacancies? Many former residents wanted to stay in their homes, but have been displaced either as a result of the Chicago Housing Authority’s current policies or other market forces beyond their control.

Too many Chicagoans are being uprooted from their homes in public housing without adequate consideration for where they will go. Families have been forced to leave their homes, yet new homes were not and still are not available for them. In fact, more than halfway into Chicago’s “Plan for Transformation,” multiple public housing facilities have been demolished but only 1,200 mixed-income homes have been built — a net loss of nearly 14,000 units for people who are poor.  There are no firm plans for how to address the resulting shortage, and data show that a tiny percentage of the people formerly living in public housing have been able to move into new, subsidized units.

In stark contrast to this example, the redevelopment of Grove Parc on Chicago’s Southside proves that it is possible to successfully address housing needs in our communities – through firm public commitment, non-profit development expertise, and community involvement.

In 2008, HUD granted ownership of Grove Parc Plaza to an organization known as the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH).  The building had been previously uninhabitable, plagued by years of mismanagement and disrepair. This development represented over 500 units of affordable rental housing, most of them Section 8.  The Grove Parc Tenants Association, POAH, and community partners joined forces to launch an enormous multi-year redevelopment project to preserve and renovate this housing. The transformation of the area is now well underway, and a zero-interest loan from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ Community Ventures Program helped to get the ball rolling.

Jewish tradition teaches, “It’s a joy to live in one’s own home” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Moed Katan 2:4). As Jews, we inherit a collective memory of wandering the desert in search of a home that will provide safety, stability, and community.   Public and affordable housing are key components to ensuring the same for all.

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