Since its founding 30 years ago, Housing Action Illinois has adhered to the same mission—making housing affordable and fair for Illinois residents. This year is no different, though the challenges have shifted as a new presidential administration takes office and the state enters its second calendar year without a budget.
The group's nine full-time staffers work behind the scenes with 160 organizations and state and federal government officials to advocate for policies and funding that help Illinoisans find and keep a place to call home—from homeowners/tenants' rights to homelessness prevention to housing affordability.
Sharon Legenza, who has worked at the nonprofit since 2008, says she has always been interested in social justice and human rights. After serving as the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska, she returned to Chicago to serve as executive director of HAI. (Anchorage is not much different than Chicago, though the winter days there are much shorter, she says.)
To celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, Housing Action Illinois is hosting a party February 13 at Lagunitas Brewing Co. We sat down with Legenza at the nonprofit’s Loop office to discuss Housing Action Illinois’s recent successes and what’s ahead in 2017.
What are some of Housing Action Illinois’ most significant achievements in 2016?
There's [legislation] called the Comprehensive Housing Planning Act, which is a state law that helps the state prioritize how we spend affordable housing resources. That law was going to expire and we worked to extend it.
Another one that was set to expire and we worked on a coalition with other groups was the [Illinois Affordable Housing Tax Credit]. A lot of affordable housing developers relied on that for new developments, particularly new rental housing developments, so it was important as a resource to engage the private market.
We’re heading into a new presidency. President-elect Donald Trump has selected Ben Carson as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Are you concerned about some of the statements Carson has made, including his denouncement of the Fair Housing Act?
We work a lot with federal partners or national organizations that do a range of housing issues. When you look at a new secretary coming in, I think there's always an education process. If Ben Carson is confirmed to be secretary of HUD, I think that [Congress] will ask what will be his priorities as secretary. That's not so clear yet, because he didn't really campaign on housing reform.
I think that with our national partners, that education process has already hopefully started. Our concern is maintaining fair housing rights, HUD's overall budget, and funding for housing programs. [We want to educate people on] what programs do and why are they necessary. And then a third priority for us is the National Housing Trust Fund—Illinois just got their allocation this year.
Obviously, HUD is an important player in the affordable housing field and we'll want to make sure that programs that work and programs that are really effective in ensuring that people have quality affordable housing continue to exist.
On a state level, what are some of the bigger issues affecting housing unaffordability?
We need a state budget. If you talk to any social service provider advocate—whether they do direct service or advocacy—the fact that we've gone now 18 months without an effective state budget is hugely problematic. And it's hugely problematic not just for groups that rely on state funding in part to provide homeless prevention or to provide supportive housing. All of these systems are interconnected. Housing is interconnected with education, which is interconnected with job stability. And I just feel like as a state we've kind of lost that message somehow.
We'll be working on as part of the Responsible Budget Coalition to persuade our elected officials on both sides of the aisle, our governor as well as the legislature, that really we need to break the impasse. It needs to just happen. As citizens of the state, we deserve better.
What message would Housing Action Illinois like to get across to the state legislature and Governor Rauner when addressing the budget impasse?
We do talk to them. [We're] working with our member organizations who provide direct services throughout the state of Illinois to talk about the importance of their programs on a local level. We sometimes forget the individual nature of the good work, when you start talking about policies and big budgets and big government versus small government versus whatever. Those ideologies and those big-picture policy positions are important to talk about. But in the end what the message we try to send is that from a housing perspective—people need it.
What are the organization’s goals for 2017?
We have this campaign to recruit "housing champions" to join our coalition. [Some of them will] work directly in affordable housing and help to push and make sure people have high-quality, affordable housing. [Others will be] people who help us advocate for good housing programs and resources to fund housing programs. It could be anyone who is willing to speak up to elected officials and say, "Hey, this is an important program. Please support it."
[Another] thing that we're going to be doing in 2017 is around fair housing. The fact that Chicago remains a very segregated city and that resources are allocated differently based on where you live in the city and the metro region is a problem. We are working with some of our partner fair-housing agencies to increase public education, understanding of fair housing rights, and thinking about how anti-segregation or pro-integration policies can be implemented on a regional basis.