This article was initially published in the Chicago Tribune
A coalition of groups voiced their support Tuesday for an ordinance sitting in the Chicago City Council’s housing committee that would prioritize finding housing for medically vulnerable populations living in group living facilities such as shelters and jails during a pandemic like COVID-19.
The ordinance would amend existing housing regulations and is sponsored by Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th. It follows earlier reports about widespread COVID-19 cases in group settings such as homeless shelters, which health officials have called some of the most challenging outbreaks to stop.
“It’s unfathomable that we sit on unoccupied, ready-to-move-in homes while some are living on the street, and while some are even living in congregate shelters during a pandemic,” Taliaferro said during a Tuesday news briefing.
Group housing settings have “accounted for 19% of cases and 36% of deaths in Chicago,” according to Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
The ordinance would require any business or nonprofit seeking funding from the city for housing development over the next two years to meet a number of requirements, including maintaining a 97% occupancy rate, having an average turnaround rate of 60 days when a unit becomes vacant and filling at least 20% of vacancies with people coming from group housing.
The bill would prioritize housing for people who are medically vulnerable, those living in homeless shelters or certain nursing homes and inmates who would otherwise be released from jail or prison except for lack of housing, Dworkin added.
“Certainly we’ve seen with this pandemic that there are just people in the population who have been let through the cracks,” said Susan Cheng, a member of the Illinois Public Health Association’s executive council.. “We failed them in a lot of different ways. This is a really good wake-up call and a good call to action.”
The ordinance’s supporters hope to partner with the Chicago Housing Authority to identify vacant units to house vulnerable populations. Existing permanent housing resources are being underused and could help provide the tools necessary for the ordinance, Dworkin said. A Freedom of Information Act request from earlier this year showed the CHA had 1,250 vacant units that could be “occupied immediately or could be turned around for occupancy,” she added.
The CHA previously told the Tribune in a statement that its existing vacant units “are not a viable option” since “nearly all vacant units across the portfolio are either reserved for meeting the high demand for our CHA applicants or are being prepped for new tenants or undergoing capital improvements.” Dworkin said she understands the CHA’s concern with waitlists, but “with the public health crisis, it’s in everyone’s best interest to prioritize moving people out of congregate settings.”
The proposal is about creating a baseline for the next pandemic so the medically vulnerable aren’t collecting in group settings before the next crisis hits, said Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative.
“What the pandemic is demonstrating to us is that we have either poor, bad or no public policy that directly impacts populations that most need it,” Washington said. “So we should take this moment to create the preferences and to create the baselines.”