We kicked off our Spring season learning from Diane Limas, Maria Elena Sifuentes, Charisma Thapa from Communities United, Mary Rosenberg from Access Living, and Rachel Arfa from Equip for Equality, and discussed aspects of inclusion and disability in relationship to access to affordable housing. Additionally, discussed strategies for coalition building and power mapping for policy change advocacy.
During Season 6 (Spring 2019) we dedicated our workshop series to build knowledge and capacities into understanding Accessory Dwelling Units (see ADUs Primer) – from policy, design, education, funding and advocacy perspectives. During this season, we are focused on developing a critical framing around social equity and social justice –what does successful age-friendly and accessible housing look like in Chicago?
We were fortunate to have guest speakers to kick-off this season whose organizations have strong experience been working on aspects of equity – so we talked about their own organizations mission's and the way they strategize about coalition building related to housing advocacy.
Communities United is a non-profit organization founded in 2000 as Albany Park Neighborhood Council, and renamed Communities United in 2015. Its mission is to unite communities in advancing social, economic, and racial justice, and focuses on Albany Park, Austin, Belmont-Cragin, Roseland, and West Ridge neighborhoods. "If you have housing, everything else is stable" said volunteer Maria Elena Sifuentes, as she shared some of the efforts that she supports the organization. Diane Limas, Board President, provided some insights about the policy advocacy efforts that they have focused on (both for homeownership and rental) such as Keep Chicago Renting Coalition (KCRO), Chicago renter rights law, and how PEAR (Preserving Existing Affordable Rental) existing for affordable housing preservation was modeled by the City of Chicago based on Communities United's "ROOTS" program (Renters Organizing Ourselves To Stay) : "We started to see cash investors scoop into 2-4 flat buildings and turn them into unaffordable rentals, and even worse, deconverting them into a very pricey single-family house. And many families in our community were displaced".
She also mentioned how basements in existing housing stock were identified a significant source of affordable units – CU identified this during a survey and outreach effort. Yet, the basement as ADU is illegal in Chicago, and therefore the living conditions and safety not regulated or overseen by official inspections. While this is a good resource for affordable living, their accessibility and other construction quality aspects often need adjustments.
Finally, Charisma Thapa, shared how they have been involved with Urban Land Institute talking about preserving affordable housing efforts. Also involved in a "preserve 2-4 flats" group (with Preservation Compact), and providing their perspective on how do we keep people in their homes without increasing their rental costs, but also making basement units safe.
Equip for Equality was founded by activist and Chicago disability rights leader Marca Bristo in 1985 (who passed away on Sunday), and focuses on supporting with legal services representing people with a variety disabilities – Rachel Arfa, Project Manager and Attorney at EE, reminded us that "people with disabilities experience constant discrimination". Their team assists people with disabilities who are engage with institutions (abuse and neglect), represents students with disabilities who are not receiving access to education, people with disabilities who are trying to get jobs and not passing hiring steps, people experiencing discrimination when trying to get access to housing. The main issue they observe related to this last aspect is that in general there's just not enough housing options for seniors and people with disabilities. They have not been directly involved with ADUs so far, but through their consistent collaboration with CU are learning about the issues that residents in this kind of units currently experience.
Access Living is the Center for Independent Living (CIL) that serves the City of Chicago – they are a local, disability consumer‑controlled, cross‑disability, nonresidential, private nonprofit. Mary Rosenberg, attorney on Access Living's civil rights team, handles most of AL's housing cases – people needed accommodations. "ADUs would help give people a choice out of nursing homes and to live in different communities. The problem is that there isn't enough affordable accessible housing".
The affordable crisis is very pressing for all – while able-bodied people, single parents or homeless youth groups are increasingly affected, there are groups with greater vulnerability that need stronger support and consistent advocacy efforts. At City Open, we wanted to talk about how from the policies shaping the built environment – specifically an ordinance that would make ADUs legal again, what would be important considerations from their perspective, and what coalition strategies might be needed during the shaping of this new policy/ordinances.
We asked about how their organizations connected and collaborated in coalition building, about strategies for stakeholder identification, and integrity of representation of their communities. You can read a few insights below:
How organizations got connected?
"We've been in coalitions with Access Living many, many times." said Diane Limas pointing to their involvement with ROOTS. "I think we started collaboration because our missions are connected. We both want to keep housing affordable, and people's special needs (housing adaptations) can sometimes make it hard to find affordable housing."
"The need for affordable housing is so great for many communities." – M. Rosenberg.
"They were also on our H3C, Healthy Cook County. When you start seeing each other (in these different places), you become allies." – M.E. Sifuentes
What are some of your strategies for stakeholder identification?
"At Access Living we have a housing organizing group. They have a robust relationship with all kinds of organizations, because a lot of our ideas are aligned. When new issues come up, we already have natural allies." – M. Rosenberg.
"We came together with the ACLU to ensure that people with disabilities were represented in the Illinois Attorney General's investigation against Chicago police brutality cases. Every issue impacts a person with a disability. Even in architecture, an architect will not think of a person with a disability until after the building is complete. We have to think about the design before it happens, and not at the end." – R. Arfa.
"In a society we have an idea to do customization, and a great aspect of an ADU is that it's easily customizable, and can be made accessible. And because they're small, you can modify them to fit someone like a glove. Fulfills a need for many different people." – L. Kearns.
How do you ensure you're representing a diversity of people and perspectives? How do we measure impact and know we're on the right track?
"Disabilities is something that people often forget. Making sure it's obvious on flyers how to ask for a reasonable accommodation. Things that you should plan for ahead of time, so people with disabilities will feel comfortable. That line is an invitation to people with disabilities that they would be welcome. –M. Rosenberg
"I'm always the person who has to call and ask for accommodations. Make sure where you host the meeting is physically accessible. It sounds straightforward, but to be honest, a lot of people forget about that. I've been to political fundraisers where the politician is in a wheelchair themselves. If you don't, you're going to miss out on the feedback from someone with a disability." - R. Arfa
"You need to bring up these issues to policymakers at every single meeting, on every single phone call. CU started talking about basement units three years ago. If you start talking about it enough at the meetings, then it starts to come across [...] Stronger with messaging requires significant coordination – to assemble/coordinate that messaging needs to integrate multiple experiences." –D. Limas
During our breakout groups part of the workshop we reflected about this insights and discussed strategies about power mapping with the scenario of coalition building around ADUs in specific neighborhoods.
Click here to see complete notes from this workshop.
What seemed a relevant takeaway in this session, is to continue asking questions in these multiple groups that are looking at ADUs – these groups (either technical or advocacy focused) assemble people with different areas of expertise and experience, and they bring important knowledge to policy reform and ordinance updates. These groups often operate in silos though – technical aspects (architecture, engineering) miss perspectives about living conditions or different groups of residents. We often think of "standards" as a way to homogenize and give technical response to issues that are more complex in nature. On the other hand, advocacy groups often miss the perspective of development and construction process and costs - not in the sense that they don't know, but having the picture of affordable and equitable alternatives from the perspective design are constantly limited. Not enough designers are looking at these issues with the lens of equity and spatial justice – not enough of course in proportion to the market-driven responses. What this conversations sheds lights to is that these groups should be more diverse in nature in terms of members and/or look for more opportunities for cross-pollination during their review process.