About 35 people gathered outside a four-bedroom house in Humboldt Park on Friday enjoying some sunshine, music and food. They were stationed there to serve as a barrier between the people who lived in the house and the people trying to push them out.
The home was one of four houses that about 12 people were “illegally locked out of,” on July 26, said social researcher Emma Tamplin, 26, who is helping the people who have called 1629 N. Washtenaw Ave. their home since the new year.
KD Williams, 39, and Wilson Mather-Glass, 25, are two of those occupants. They said they moved in Jan. 1 after seeing a homeless encampment pop up in the neighborhood, while a large number of homes allegedly owned by the Chicago Housing Authorities remained vacant.
The housing authority has owned the property at 1629 N. Washtenaw Ave. since 1996, according to city records.
Williams said there was no notice of eviction prior to July 26, which is when employees from the Hispanic Housing Development Corp. allegedly showed up to the house and removed some of their belongings and asked Williams, Mather-Glass and a third roommate, who was out of town Friday, to remove the rest.
“They broke down our door, broke a bunch of our things, threatened us, used many homophobic and transphobic slurs,” Williams said.
A representative for the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation said Friday all requests for comment would be referred to the CHA.
The housing authority said in a statement, “CHA takes these issues seriously and follows all appropriate legal processes to remove squatters from our property. We have viewed the video of the encounter on July 26 and have concerns about how this situation was handled by our third-party property manager and this incident is under investigation.”
As of Friday, Williams and Mather-Glass have made their way back inside the home with their stuff. Williams said occupying vacant houses is a way to stand up against the housing authority’s “practice of holding houses vacant for years.”
Tamplin, Williams and Mather-Glass call their initiative the “Humboldt Park Housing Project.”
The house at 1629 N. Washtenaw Ave. had several code violations as of 2019, according to city building permit and inspection records, including not registering the building vacant within 30 days of it becoming vacant or within 30 days after assuming ownership of an existing vacant building. The house was also cited for failure to maintain the exterior walls and keeping the structure free of holes, breaks and any other conditions that could allow rain or moisture into the walls.
Williams, who works as a teacher and is also studying civil engineering, said it’s clear the house was not built to last.”None of these vacant houses have been maintained because they’re all falling apart,” Williams said. “Then that’s their excuse for leaving them vacant.”
The housing authority said it maintains more than 16,000 units of public housing and a portion of the units are vacant for a number of reasons at any given time, including scheduled redevelopment, work such as painting and minor repairs and units undergoing more extensive capital improvement work.
As units become ready to be occupied, they are offered to applicants on the housing authority’s public housing waiting lists, which are open and subject to HUD regulations, the housing authority said.
“CHA provides safe and stable housing to 63,000 families throughout the city,” according to the statement. “We partner closely with other city and nonprofit agencies to provide housing opportunities to address homelessness, including recently issuing nearly 1,200 emergency housing vouchers.”
Tamplin said the four homes that about 12 people were locked out of last week were “vacant for several years.”
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As of Friday, she wasn’t sure if any of the other three houses had been reoccupied since July 26, two of which were previously occupied by “more vulnerable folks experiencing homelessness” that the Humboldt Park Housing Project is “trying to protect,” she said.
“The biggest thing is turning over these vacant houses,” Tamplin said. “They need to be made available to people who need them. It’s absurd. People need housing, and if they’re going to go on about the need for affordable housing, they should do the bare minimum and spend what they’re paid every year to take care of these places and make them available immediately.”
Mather-Glass, 25, is a special education classroom assistant, musician, activist and restaurant worker, and he said the community has been supportive of the group’s efforts.
There have been no signs of trouble from the group, Mather-Glass said, and at the end of the day, most people are primarily worried about keeping their neighborhood safe.
“We hear about it every day, but where is this violence coming from,” Mather-Glass said. “What are the things that are pushing people into the streets and pushing people into desperation? Not having a home, that foundation being removed from under you, that is square one. Once that happens, you’re sliding down.”