Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign fights for tenants' moral rights

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Emma Harris, 90, demonstrating in Chicago. The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign has been helping Harris fight to buy back her home from Harris Bank.

The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign was born out almost out of necessity, according to founder and chair J.R. Fleming.

In 2009, Chicago - as was much of the nation - was bearing the brunt of the home foreclosure crisis. More and more people were evicted as property owners were losing their buildings to foreclosures. In October that year, a United Nations housing mission came to Chicago on a fact-finding trip to look at the housing crisis.

Toussaint Losier, CAEC vice chairperson, was organizing the mission on the U.N. side as a volunteer at the time.

J.R. Fleming, the CAEC chair, was involved in a steering committee that helped arrange for the U.N. group to visit Chicago. In 2009, he was doing anti-eviction work for the then still-standing Cabrini Green housing project.

"Chicago was our first stop," Losier said, on a tour of seven U.S. cities.

He was also doing work for the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and fighting for residents in South Africa. He said he saw parallels in the Chicago housing troubles to those in Cape Town. After its fact-finding trip, the U.N. mission had challenged Chicago to get involved with anti-eviction work as a human rights issue, and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign was born.

The CAEC and groups like it across the U.S. are starting to combine their efforts.

Ryan Acuff, founder of Take Bake the Land in Rochester, N.Y., said groups like his and the CAEC have a common goal to make housing permanently affordable.

"We're trying to turn around and reorganize housing as a human right," he said.

Fleming said he and the campaign saw that housing problems stretched beyond race and demographic, so although the campaign began with its focus on housing projects, it expanded to include Section 8 housing and homeowners facing foreclosure.

The work is important, Losier said, because people don't always realize that what is legally right may not be morally right.

He cited an example of a case where a family - the Muhammeds - was living in a rental house in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. The CAEC issued a public letter on Jan. 12, 2012, on behalf of Janice Muhammed that stated Muhammed's current landlord had not informed her that the property was in foreclosure as of May 2011, even though Muhammed had signed a lease renewal through the February 2012. Her family was issued an eviction notice just as Muhammed's previously diagnosed breast cancer had spread.

She contacted the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign for help, and Losier took on their case as lead organizer. Fleming explained that the general format for taking on cases includes an interview process, research to cross-references case facts and documents and, if necessary, taking action in the form of negotiations or, in extreme cases, demonstrations and public appearances.

Losier said the CAEC added a Chicago-specific tweak for keeping tenants or homeowners in their homes. The group had determined that to move beyond the banks' initial hesitations in working with the CAEC (who was a relatively new group at the time), the bank could donate property to a non-profit for a tax write-off, if that particular property was assessed under a dollar value threshold.

For the Muhammeds' case, U.S. Bank ultimately donated the house to Chicago-based non-profit Global Network Community Development Corporation, which being tax-exempt was only responsible for the base cost and home's upkeep. Thus, the non-profit was able to offer the family a rent almost one-third of what they had previously been paying, and Janice Muhammed was able to stay in the house.

Not all cases are as successful, Fleming said, and sometimes all that can be done is to provide the tenants or homeowners with a list of residency-related resources, which can include contacts for free legal advice.

However, very often, he said, those whom the CAEC have helped stay involved with the campaign to work on future cases.

"People are helping people stay in their homes and community," Fleming said.

For the U.S. anti-eviction campaign at large, Acuff of Rochester's Take Back the Land said organizations have a goal beyond one-by-one campaign work. They're trying to create momentum for having foreclosed properties donated to local community land trusts, which would take the ailing properties off the housing market altogether and keep the residents in their homes.

"By having simultaneous actions across the country, we would have more leverage to have banks donate the properties," he said.