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By Anna Lothson
"Fight, fight, fight, housing is a human right," was chanted Thursday outside Oak Park Apartments during a protest held outside the company's headquarters at 41 Chicago Ave., prompted by a prospective tenant who learned that the company no longer rents to tenants with federal government Section 8 housing vouchers.
The protestors were organized by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) which is working to give renters a voice at the state level, urging legislation to "close the loophole" for landlords who don't want to rent to Section 8 applicants.
Sarah Perry, an MTO volunteer who helped rally the group, lives in Englewood but wanted to make Oak Park her home. She was told by Oak Park Apartments that it no longer accepts Section 8 vouchers.
"It's a better opportunity for me and my family," she said, citing Oak Park's better schools, more job options and healthy diversity.
Perry said the MTO came to raise awareness about what the group claims are unfair housing practices. They chanted about Oak Park redlining and said it's time to give everyone a fair chance at living where they want.
Oak Park Apartments owner Bill Planek said his company's policy of accepting no new Section 8 voucher holders isn't as simple as the MTO suggests. Accepting the vouchers changes the terms of his typical lease agreement, he said. The voucher represents an agreement between the Oak Park Housing Authority, the voucher recipient and the property owner, instead of just the tenant and landlord. Planek said his concerns are not with the local Housing Authority but with government agencies at higher levels that create and oversee the regulations attached to the program.
According to the Housing Authority's website, the agency enters into an agreement with the prospective tenant. Then, the tenant finds a unit and enters into a lease. The property owner and the Housing Authority enter into a "Housing Assistance Payments Contract" that provides a rent subsidy for the family through the Housing Authority.
Planek said the problem with that type of lease is that if the housing center ever takes away the recipient's voucher, the property owner still has the lease with the tenant but without the funding provided by the voucher. That creates a situation where the tenant may no longer be able to afford the apartment.
The MTO protest wasn't directed solely against Oak Park Apartments, but represents one of many stops the group plans in a county-wide fight. MTO selected Oak Park Apartments because it's one of the largest landlords in Oak Park with nearly 1,000 units.
"Many people with disabilities rely on vouchers for their housing," Adam Ballard, a voucher holder, said in an MTO release. "We want Oak Park Apartments and Cook County to end this legalized discrimination. All we are asking is to be treated like anyone else."
Currently, the City of Chicago forbids landlords to discriminate against voucher holders, but this is not the case in Cook County's suburbs. According to a news release from the MTO, Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia is trying to change that and has introduced legislation that would amend the county's Human Rights Ordinance to make it illegal to discriminate against Housing Choice Voucher holders.
"Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher holders are stereotyped and therefore often forced to live in high-crime, low-opportunity communities," said Shirley Johnson, MTO's organizing director. She said a rental policy that refuses to rent to voucher holders is blatant discrimination.
Edward Solan, executive director of the Oak Park Housing Authority, doesn't agree with Planek's position. Though a voucher holder can lose the voucher for a number of reasons, he said, it is not a common occurrence.
If the tenant doesn't pay their portion of the rent, for example, the housing authority may terminate the voucher. Solan said failing to pay is a default on the tenant's agreement and the housing agency would no longer aid that applicant.
The Oak Park Housing Authority currently holds 500 vouchers and has a lengthy waiting list. Waiting list applicants can only receive a voucher if a spot opens up, since no more are available from the county. Turnover in the program, however, is low, Solan said.
Because of how difficult it is to obtain a voucher and because keeping the voucher is essential for an individual or family's livelihood, it's "not common," he said, for a person to violate the voucher terms. The voucher could also be lost if a person's income moves above prescribed guidelines, but Solan said that's usually viewed as a positive thing.
Planek said his company rents to federally subsidized tenants, such as Hurricane Katrina refugees and people funded by various social service agencies, including West Suburban PADS and Catholic Charities. But in those instances, the subsidies cannot be pulled by the government or the agency because the lease terms differ. This, he said, demonstrates that his company does not discriminate.
Oak Park Apartments still has a handful of Section 8 housing voucher tenants, Planek said, but they have decided not to accept any further applicants. The decision is simply based on business realities, he said. The hassle of third-party leases aren't worth dealing with. It's not any person he's against, he said, but the system.
"There are no benefits to us," he noted. "I don't need to be involved in that relationship. … Being in business, we have to make decisions that are best for us, given how expensive it is to be in business and how costly it is to have a vacancy or have someone not paying you, so we expedite everything we do to make sure we have the best for our future growth."