|Posted on November 4, 2016 at 11:50 PM|
Civil Rights Deal Give East Chicago Residents More Time To Move
Families living at the lead- and arsenic- contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex will have more time to move and no longer have to pay rent under a civil rights settlement reached this week between the East Chicago Housing Authority and a Chicago-based fair housing organization.
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law first filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Aug. 29 on behalf of six former and current residents and a coalition of concerned citizens, Calumet Lives Matter.
The complaint alleged the East Chicago Housing Authority — uncommitted at that time to covering security deposits, moving expenses and assisting with the housing search — was noncompliant with federal law.
Katherine Walz, director of housing justice with the Shriver Center, said the agreement — which also offers protections to eligible former residents — represents the organization’s “collective best efforts” to protect families.
“The hard-fought battle was by the residents themselves,” Walz said Friday. “You can’t imagine how difficult it is to sue the very program that provides you housing.”
Residents are calling the agreement — approved Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a significant victory for the more than 1,000 being forced to relocate from the complex, which was built in the early 1970s on the footprint of a former lead smelter. The complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School are part of the first zone of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.
Sherry Hunter, a community activist with the coalition Calumet Lives Matter, said rent abatement and an extended relocation deadline were key battles she fought for, and won.
“People have come to me and hugged me and thanked me. I keep telling them you don’t need to thank me for something that should have been done anyway by (ECHA),” Hunter said.
Jewel Harris Jr., attorney for ECHA, said all parties had the same goal in mind, which was to make sure residents had protections.
“It was just a question of how and how do we get that plan in writing,” Harris Jr. said Friday. Settlement highlights
Under the agreement, residents have until March 31 to find housing and will receive assistance with the search. The local Housing Authority also agreed to waive rent owed between July 22 and March 31, 2017, and reimburse any rent paid for this month. They also cannot be evicted, threatened with eviction or charged with late fees.
ECHA will offer relocation benefits to eligible residents, including those who moved out before city officials announced last summer the soil contained unsafe levels of lead and arsenic.
Residents who moved out before the announcement will qualify for benefits if they can demonstrate they left because of lead- or arsenic- related health concerns or have children younger than 6.
Harris Jr. said the ECHA staff is unsure how many families left for that reason.
“We don’t have a list of people. They would have to come forward and demonstrate that’s why they left,” he said.
Families that have not found new housing by March 31 can transfer out of West Calumet on an emergency basis. Those families will have until July 1 to take their housing vouchers to a new location, according to HUD.ECHA may initiate emergency transfers to other public housing units, but only after units are inspected for lead, according to the agreement. City and Housing Authority officials have said in the event of an emergency transfer, the plan is to relocate residents to Harbor side Apartments on Guthrie Street — but only as a last resort.
“We not only want to move them out of a place that caused the lead poisoning, we also want to ensure they don’t move into other housing with ... lead contamination,” Walz said.
Residents with disabilities or with elevated blood lead levels will be offered additional time and assistance to move.
Prospective apartments that have been inspected by ECHA will be reinspected, and the Indiana State Department of Health will facilitate risk assessments before anyone with elevated blood lead levels moves into a new unit. I just want a safe home’
Krystle Jackson, a mother of four who left the complex in mid-July because of her son’s elevated blood lead levels, is one client named in the initial complaint. She said ECHA staff told her earlier this year she was ineligible for assistance because she left prior to the city’s announcement on July 22.
“With my son, in March, they didn’t do anything. But they (knew the EPA) had taken soil samples,” Jackson said. “They wanted nothing to do with it.”
She said her daughter, now 3, also tested positive for lead about a year ago.
Jackson, who said she was homeless at one point over the summer, is now expected to receive a housing voucher within the next five days and receive priority access to a vacant public housing unit in East Chicago, other than at West Calumet.
“Even once I get my voucher, I hope I can move in a timely manner. I just want a safe home for me and my kids,” she said. “It’s been crazy. I’ve been trying to keep a straight face in front of my kids. That’s the hard part.”