Journal for Social Justice hosts affordable housing-focused symposium

The DePaul Journal for Social Justice hosted its annual symposium on April 17, 2013, which focused on housing issues as they affect low-income populations in Chicago. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Center for Public Interest Law and supported by the Vincentian Endowment Fund. Take Shelter: Keep Shelter, the theme of the event, provided information and discussion on the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the creation of affordable housing, and the Chicago Housing Authority’s one-strike eviction policy to more than 70 attorneys, law students and community members.

During the first panel, speakers discussed the mortgage foreclosure crisis, including its history, lasting effects and proposed solutions for working with clients who have been hardest hit by the crisis. Daniel Lindsey, supervisory attorney for the consumer practice group at Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, started the panel with an apt comparison of the mortgage bubble to the creation and ultimate demise of the infamous Titanic.

Alumna Cecilia Abundis (’04), an assistant attorney general, highlighted the investigations and meaningful litigation the Illinois Attorney General’s office has been engaging in for more than a decade to combat fraudulent mortgage-related activity and to hold lenders accountable for their actions. Finally, Liz Caton, housing counselor for Northwest Side Housing Center, encouraged attorneys and law students to work directly with housing counselors to provide a more holistic service for clients undergoing foreclosure. Caton emphasized the need to truly counsel clients on financial planning, working with banks, and how to survive and carry on post-foreclosure.

The symposium’s keynote speaker, Nicholas Brunick, partner at Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen, gave an impassioned speech on creating sustainable development and affordable housing in struggling communities, and encouraged attendees to find and commit their life to their passion. The fundamental message was that at the core of all development or private investment is a community: when you have an organized community that is committed to growth and fostering safe, productive neighborhoods, you are more likely to have successful community development projects.

The second panel of the day addressed the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) one-strike eviction policy, which removes an individual and his or her entire family from a site-based housing program or from the Section 8 voucher program for any criminal conduct. Alan Mills, attorney at Uptown People’s Law Center, explained how the policy, designed to reduce criminal activity in public housing, serves as a blanket policy of mandatory eviction for any arrest-more often than not, for possession of a negligible amount of marijuana.

Lawrence Wood, director of the housing legal group at Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, expanded on the CHA policy by explaining how one simple arrest, regardless of conviction, can mean termination from the housing program for the entire family living with the arrested individual. Wood also provided the defenses that attorneys representing tenants often use to prevent one-strike policy evictions. Tenants often claim the “innocent tenant” defense or have the individual barred from the premises as a show of amelioration, even when that individual is a teenager.

At the close of the CHA one-strike policy panel, Professor Michael Seng of the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Support Center illustrated how the policy is actually racially discriminatory because the incarceration rate affects a disproportionate amount of African Americans. He proposed using the Fair Housing Act to show that the one-strike policy has a disparate impact on certain races considering the concentration of police power and criminal prosecutions on predominantly African American neighborhoods.

“I knew that the collateral consequences of a criminal record were far-reaching, but CHA’s one-strike policies are even more deplorable than I realized before this panel,” said Courtney Kelledes (’13). “I was grateful to hear Professor Seng’s exciting proposals for the use of existing laws to overcome the barriers faced by individuals with criminal records in both the public and private housing sectors.”

“Take Shelter: Keep Shelter” was a forum for scholars and practitioners in various areas of housing law to educate on substantive issues and proposed policy changes, but also a place to create dialogue about the current state of housing in Chicago. One attorney in attendance stated after the symposium, “These issues of inadequate housing in Chicago are why I went to law school. This symposium brought me back to my roots.”