North Shore housing advocates are cheering a recent change to a county ordinance that aims to protect Section 8 voucher holders from discrimination.
More than 12,000 people in suburban Cook County receive housing assistance through housing choice vouchers, commonly referred to as Section 8 vouchers. Landlords can no longer simply opt out of the voucher program after the county board voted last month to amend its human rights ordinance, said Brendan Saunders, director of advocacy and community organizing for the Winnetka-based Open Communities.
"Before, if a tenant had a housing voucher, they wouldn't even consider Winnetka — and they still may not," Saunders said. "But now they can't be denied just because of the subsidy."
It's too early to tell what kind of impact this will have in affluent North Shore communities, where affordable rental options are scarce, Saunders said. Tenants with vouchers pay 30 percent of their income toward housing costs; the government pays the rest — up to a point.
In Wilmette, there are nine voucher holders, according to numbers provided by the Housing Authority of Cook County. In Winnetka, there's one.
"People probably think, let them go somewhere else," said Tom Miranda, Winnetka's voucher holder. "But an apartment's an apartment anywhere in the United States."
Miranda, 44, lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Elm Street. Previously, he lived in Evanston. A few years ago, he had been volunteering at the election polls at the Winnetka Community House when he decided he would look for an apartment.
Originally from Chicago, Miranda said he recently attended online college courses, while working as a salesman for Marketstar Corporation, a Utah-based company.
But he does neither now, as his health has deteriorated in the past couple of years. He struggles daily with complications from diabetes, Miranda said. A recovering alcoholic, Miranda is also an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Wilmette.
"My life sometimes falls apart for health and sometime economic reasons," he said, sitting at his kitchen table. "It's been a rocky road."
Saunders said he's acted as an advocate and worked with Miranda and his landlord to inform both parties of their rights and responsibilities. .
Before the change to the Cook County human rights ordinance, tenants were protected from discrimination on the basis of a person's source of income, such as child support and social security. But housing choice vouchers were not included.
When the Cook County Board voted 9-6 last month in favor of including the vouchers on the protected list, the victory was a long-time coming for Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin. He said he's been hoping for such a change for 11 years, but it took the right political mix of commissioners to make it happen.
"Often times, people who have need of the vouchers also have other needs, like special needs assistance for their children and good schools," Suffredin said. "They need to be able to use the vouchers in great communities where they want to live."
Suffredin's 13th district includes most of the North Shore, as well as more economically diverse communities like Evanston and Skokie. He said he didn't expect the rule change to have much impact in villages like Winnetka and Wilmette, but that it would generally protect people from being ruled out automatically.
Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, said the ordinance amendment was one of several recent changes intended to allow more movement for voucher holders into better communities.
"We've been trying to give people the opportunity to move into communities with better access to jobs, transit and good school systems," Monocchio said.
A new housing authority program is offering higher rent subisidies, up to about $1,600 for a family of four, to accommodate a higher market value, he said. There have also been efforts to streamline the housing inspection process and subsequent voucher payments to reduce the bureaucratic burden on landlords, he said.
Protecting those with vouchers from being automatically refused a place to live, Monocchio said, was a "basic matter of fairness."