Chicago tenants demand "Slumlords out of City Hall!"
In Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago, slumlords get a spot on the city's top planning board - while their tenants get thrown out of public meetings. On January 21, dozens of community activists from the Woodlawn community on the South Side packed the Chicago Plan Commission meeting to demand the removal of Leon Finney, Jr., whose Woodlawn Development Corporation owns several residential buildings with slum conditions.
Latasha Edwards, president of the Kimbark Tenants Association, addressed the Commission and was quickly called out of order. Other tenants and community activists -- many of them with Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and some from Northside Action for Justice (NA4J) -- chanted "Mayor Daley hear our call: slumlords out of City Hall!" and "Housing is a Human Right!" as security removed us from the chamber.
Degrading and unhealthy apartments
Outside, residents at WRC buildings cataloged their degrading and unsafe living conditions: dangerous fire escapes, missing smoke alarms, cracked floors and mildewed walls, peeling paint, lack of heat, and more. With pain in her eyes, Edwards spoke of sleepless nights in her rodent and roach-infested apartment, spent worrying whether the pests were crawling on her young children.
Another tenant at the same apartment building found that she'd developed pneumonia in her mold-covered home.
Finney, the son of a preacher and restauranteur, has maneuvered a multi-level, insider relationship with the Chicago political machine over several decades. Over thirty years he's chalked up numerous re-appointments to the Plan Commission, was Vice Chair of the Public Housing Authority, and led a series of city-funded religious and community organizations intended to bulwark Black support for the ruling coalition's efforts to squeeze ever more profits from the city's working people.
One of the more shameful points in this history was his role in the veto of the 2006 "Big Box" living wage bill, which would have mandated social wages from corporate retailers like Wal*Mart. Finney's The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) and its development arm rake in public HUD money and slither away from meaningful fines or code violation citations while residents face substandard living conditions and eviction. "We want to know, who are the inspectors being paid to look the other way?" demanded Rev Andre Smith.
It's worth mentioning that this is a man who, in 2006, evicted his own sister!
A new movement of solidarity and defiance
Despite the odds stacked against them, Thursday's defiant action builds on a recent history of organizing for real community justice through the Kimbark Tenants Association and other projects of STOP, as well as the budding Chicago Anti-Evictions Campaign.
One of those present in solidarity with Southside renters was Erica Bledsoe, an activist in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago's far north side. In October, alongside NA4J the Bledsoe family won an important fight by blocking their eviction from another HUD property.
Blows against the moneyed real estate interests are too few, but through lifting up each hard won victory and organizing, we can stand up to this system that values dollars more than decent housing.