Ron Clewer couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A single mom, a black woman in her early 30s, had just told housing authority officials in Rockford, Ill., that she would kick her 15-year-old son out of her apartment if it meant she could keep the place for herself and her two younger children. It happened because private security guards hired by the housing agency had stopped the son, and, when they found he wasn’t carrying identification, searched him. They found the remains of a marijuana joint.
The housing authority sent the mother a notice telling her that, because of locally enforced federal rules that prohibited drug use in public housing, the entire family of four could lose their home, even though the mother had done nothing wrong. In fact, the mother had moved to public housing to keep her children safe after surviving domestic abuse. She requested a hearing to plead her case, which is where her story shook Clewer, who is white. “If you tell me I am going to lose my housing, I am going to make a decision to throw my son out of my house,” Clewer recounts her saying, “because I can’t lose housing for my other two children.” But the housing authority had a zero-tolerance policy, so it evicted the mother and the entire family.
The dire situation wasn’t entirely the son’s fault, says Clewer, who had just taken over as CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority (RHA). Much of the blame lay with the housing authority itself.
RHA had hired the private security firm, Metro Enforcement, to police its properties. Together, the agency and Metro had taken a hard line on enforcement. Small infractions, such as not having ID, could lead to expulsion from RHA property. In 2012, when Clewer became CEO, hundreds of people a year were being kicked out for trespassing. More often than not, that merely meant the offenders had failed to carry or show identification to a security officer. Being banned from one unit could disqualify them for Section 8 housing assistance vouchers, which the housing authority also administered.
A low-level offense could quickly escalate, as it had in the son’s case. Because the security guards were hired by the RHA to monitor its own property, they didn’t have to operate under the same strict rules police officers do. So, for example, they could search a 15-year-old without probable cause and, when they discovered a joint, turn him over to the Rockford Police Department. When Clewer began looking at data on arrests at RHA properties, he found that 80 percent of them were linked to the RHA’s bans. “We weren’t providing safety,” Clewer says now. “We were providing military control.”
The intense scrutiny of the residents at the Rockford Housing Authority is common in areas where poor black people live. Heavy-handed enforcement tactics are often employed in the name of protecting residents from crime. But often they catch only low-level offenders, with dire consequences for the offender’s ability to get a job or decent housing. That, in turn, reinforces deep-seated patterns of segregation in the communities where zero tolerance policies are used.
Governing conducted a six-month investigation into black-white segregation in downstate Illinois, and why and how it has persisted so stubbornly there. Specifically, we focused on the cities of Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield, Peoria and Rockford. Those cities are similar in size, separate from the major metropolitan areas of Chicago and St. Louis, and wholly contained in Illinois.
Our review found many practices that placed greater burdens on black residents than white residents because of where they lived. These practices were used not just by police, but by non- law enforcement agencies like the Rockford Housing Authority. They included increased surveillance, frequent ID checks and rigorously enforced nuisance ordinances.
The Fear of Eviction
The mother whom Ron Clewer encountered had good reason to worry about what would happen if she lost her home at the project. Evictions can have a ripple effect on the people they displace, says Ashley Gromis, a sociologist at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “An eviction can make it hard to get approved for any apartment,” Gromis says. “What happens is you push people into an area where there is substandard housing.”
That’s exactly what happened to residents who were kicked out of Rockford’s public housing, Clewer says. They seldom left the city and, in fact, often stayed in the same neighborhood, in rundown apartments near public housing. Police and residents often assume that the housing projects are the most dangerous places in their city, but that’s not always the case. Often, the areas just outside the projects are more dangerous than the projects themselves. The private apartments don’t have the open landscape, lighting and security cameras that the public housing units use to deter crime. Plus, the housing authority screens its tenants more aggressively.
Clewer remembers that, when he had just taken over the housing authority, the mayor, police department and housing officials talked about crime in public housing at monthly RockStat meetings, Rockford’s data analysis sessions where issues are examined with heavy use of numbers. They tracked the number of expulsions from RHA property. They talked about the types of crimes for which people were being arrested. Trespassing accounted for a third of the arrests.
One statistic that city officials discussed repeatedly was the disparity in arrests at RHA properties between residents and non-residents. In August 2015, for example, the data showed that three times as many non-residents as residents were arrested in the housing projects. But the data did not indicate who those outsiders were. “We were doing no good banning people, because the people we were banning were young black males who were either the father of someone living on our property or the child of one of the mothers who lives there,” Clewer says. Besides, the no-tolerance policy itself may have driven up the number of arrests for outsiders.
For Tanya Grisby, the numbers and policies talked about in RockStat meetings were just facts of her everyday life. The 27-year-old single mother lives in Blackhawk Courts, a public housing project just east of the Rock River. Her barracks-style apartment puts her in a safer section of the development, near other families. But Grisby says crime is so bad in other parts of the complex that she takes her son to a playground several blocks away rather than hang out in the common playground nearby.
Even so, Grisby thinks back to the get-tough approach the housing authority once took toward cracking down on crime. On a chilly and overcast evening in September, she and two friends swapped stories on a concrete step in front of an apartment. They talked about the days when the private security guards patrolled the projects. They all knew friends or family members who had been banned from the projects for minor infractions, such as forgetting their ID at home. “You felt unwelcome in your own community,” she says. “This didn’t feel like my home, it felt like a prison.”
Clewer decided a new approach was needed. He started to move the RHA away from harsh rules enforcement and toward addressing residents’ basic needs. Clewer initially encountered resistance from city officials, the police department and even his own agency. But he got cover to make substantive changes in 2015 when the Obama administration said local public housing agencies should stop using “one strike” policies for minor violations. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also reminded the local authorities of their “obligation to safeguard the due process rights of applicants and tenants.”
That cleared the way for Clewer to cancel the RHA’s contract with the private security firm. He began negotiations to have the police department take over security for the RHA, a deal that was finalized in 2016. Clewer worked with the new police chief to make sure the cops took a less aggressive approach toward low-level offenses than the private guards did. “I began to focus on public housing residents, their behaviors and how we could assist them,” Clewer says. “The police, meanwhile, began to focus on people who were often coming to our property to commit crimes.”
‘Intentionally Ugly and Obnoxious’
In Peoria, the police department calls the aging armored truck parked on the city’s southwest side an “armadillo.” The police see it as a symbol of law and order in neighborhoods that have had to endure chronic nuisances and frequent minor crimes. But fair housing advocates see the truck far differently: as a symbol of indiscriminate police power used disproportionately in black neighborhoods to kick people out of their homes.
The armadillo is covered in graffiti-resistant paint, in the familiar black, white and blue scheme and police badge of old city patrol cars. It’s outfitted with 10 infrared video cameras pointing outward around its roof. A bumper sticker cautions that the “vehicle is under video surveillance.” Two cartoons of armadillos wearing police hats are affixed to the sides amid the flaking paint.
On one recent day, the armadillo was parked on the gravel shoulder of a small street on the city’s southwest side. It appeared to be monitoring a tidy house across the street, where nobody was home. A crowd of young men sat on a nearby stoop, passing cigarettes and joints, paying almost no attention to the hulking vehicle nearby. They were skeptical that the cameras were even turned on.
The Peoria police department has been using its armadillos, or nuisance abatement vehicles, for the past decade. The idea is to let repeat troublemakers — who disturb neighbors with loud music, litter, loitering and disorderly conduct — know that the police are watching them. If troublemakers know the police department is sweating the small stuff, the thinking goes, they’re less likely to commit drug dealing and other more serious crimes.
The armadillo was born after vandals damaged an empty squad car left in front of a drug dealer’s house in 2006. The car was nearly demolished, according to a department report. “Every piece of glass on the car was smashed, from the windshield to the headlights. The sheet metal was damaged, tires flattened and foreign objects littered the interior. A bike frame was found lying on the top of the back seat, and chunks of stone were on the floor. The vehicle was no longer drivable and had to be towed to the police garage, in full view of the drug dealers and the legitimate community members.”
So the police department began using used a donated old armored truck instead. The department improved it so would-be vandals couldn’t smash its lights or slash its tires. Then it added emergency lights and cameras. “Fully equipped and fortified, the armadillo is a virtually indestructible surveillance vehicle to discourage and prevent illegal narcotics activity and the various nuisance activities that impact the quality of life,” the department report says. “The vehicle is designed to be imposing and prominent [or], one might say, intentionally ugly and obnoxious.”
The idea briefly became a nationwide sensation after The Wall Street Journal wrote a feature on it in 2009, and other media outlets followed suit. Several other police departments, including Rockford’s, rolled out armadillos of their own.
But while the armadillos became symbols of smart policing in many circles, to fair housing advocates they became a symbol of something else: the discriminatory way that the city of Peoria responds to nuisance violations.
The Hope Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit group based in Chicago’s suburbs, sued the city of Peoria in 2017 over the way it handles nuisance violations. “The armadillos, like the nuisance ordinance, are deployed at the request of political officials and well-connected local residents rather than pursuant to objective criteria,” the group alleged in its lawsuit. “These deployments are made primarily in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.”
Peoria first enacted a chronic nuisance ordinance in 1998. The law targets landlords who own properties that are repeatedly cited for a range of disturbances, including housing code violations, noise complaints and drug possession, on up to murder. After two incidents in a year, police can treat the property as an “aggravated chronic nuisance property.”
The lawsuit claims that the police force doesn’t treat all alleged violators the same. The job falls to a small team within the police department, and it has few rules to follow and little oversight. In three years, the city issued just 148 nuisance citations, HOPE’s attorneys wrote, even though records of police calls indicate that as many as 12,000 properties could have been cited under the nuisance ordinance. More than 70 percent of the nuisance citations that the city did issue were in black neighborhoods, even though blacks made up only 27 percent of the population. A map included with the lawsuit shows that police posted armadillos almost exclusively in areas with significant black populations.
Police usually insist that landlords evict problem tenants to abate a nuisance, the lawsuit states, even if the only thing the tenant did was report domestic violence or ask for help locating a mentally ill family member. (Before the lawsuit was filed, the Illinois legislature passed a law to prohibit cities from using nuisance ordinances against the victims of domestic violence or people with mental disabilities, and Peoria changed its ordinance accordingly. But the lawsuit claims the Peoria police department hasn’t changed its practices to comply with the law.) It charges that African-American residents regularly face eviction for conduct that would not result in eviction elsewhere.
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis says that the armadillos and the nuisance ordinance are used to address concerns reported by neighbors, such as drug dealing or loud noises. “The people that live in that area want that in their neighborhood,” he says. “The nuisance ordinance doesn’t target any specific group of individuals. It’s targeted towards people that are doing things in their neighborhoods that are disruptive.”
Kate Walz, the director of housing justice at the Sargent Shriver Center on National Poverty Law, is one of the attorneys representing HOPE in the case. She says Peoria is one of more than 100 Illinois cities that have similar nuisance property ordinances.
“The problem is that the city is determining who is being evicted, not the property owner. The city bypasses the tenant,” she says. The property owners aren’t even going through proper eviction proceedings in court, because they want to appease police and city officials. Instead, landlords will waive a renter’s last month of rent, give them back their entire security deposit or otherwise entice their renters to leave quickly.
“If landlords don’t capitulate, they’re met with code enforcement,” Walz says. “Landlords feel like have limited power. They want to avoid steep fines. So they will do what the city wants them to do, which is to evict their tenants.”
Some cities, particularly in the Chicago suburbs, have gone further. At least 50 Illinois municipalities have passed “crime free” rental housing ordinances, which require landlords to ensure that their properties remain clear of crime in order to be licensed to operate their businesses. In some cases, that means extra landlord training. In other cases, cities require landlords to run criminal background checks on all prospective tenants. But in most cases, the cities provide landlords with “crime free” lease terms they must use, specifying the types of crime that would violate the lease and allow the landlord to evict the tenant.
In 2016, the Obama administration warned against using policies that too broadly denied housing to prospective tenants based on the fact that they had a criminal history. That was especially true if the policies made those denials based on arrests, rather than actual convictions, warned Helen R. Kanovsky, HUD’s general counsel at the time. “A discriminatory effect resulting from a policy or practice that denies housing to anyone with a prior arrest or any kind of criminal conviction cannot be justified,” she wrote, “and therefore such a practice would violate the Fair Housing Act.”
‘Here, You Can’t Even Get a Job’
Two years ago, on the day that Caterpillar Inc., announced it would move its world headquarters from Peoria to Chicago, Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth decided she needed to do something to improve job prospects for her constituents in Peoria. The idea she settled on was to host a large meeting where people who had criminal records would connect with lawyers to try to have those records expunged or sealed to anyone outside the justice system.
A criminal record, no matter how old or how serious, can prevent someone from working at most of the Peoria area’s biggest employers. Caterpillar (which is still the area’s largest employer), hospitals, schools, a steel manufacturer and even the local riverboat casino all screen people with criminal background checks.
“If you have a record, you can’t work in any of those places. None,” says Gordon-Booth. “If you want to work in health care, and you want to go to Illinois Central College, you can’t even become certified in anything if you have a record. We’re not talking about a violent record, this is for anything. It’s forever. If it’s there, it’s there. It doesn’t go away.”
Black residents of Peoria need any help they can get in finding jobs. In 2017, according to the Census Bureau, the black unemployment rate in the Peoria metro area was five times as high as the white unemployment rate. In fact, at 25 percent, black unemployment in the Peoria area was the highest of any metropolitan region in the country.
“When you look at people of color and their over-representation in the justice system, it begins to become real clear why you have issues with economic segregation, and why people are segregated out of being able to go after the American Dream,” says Gordon-Booth. “They don’t even have the opportunity.”
Blacks elsewhere in Illinois have faced similarly tough circumstances. In 2017, the Decatur, Rockford and Carbondale metropolitan areas were all ranked among the top 10 in the country for black unemployment rates.
In Springfield, the median black household income is only 42 percent of the median income for white households there, the lowest of any metro area in the country. The Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, Kankakee and Peoria metro areas similarly also rank in the top 10 percent nationally for disparities between black and white househo ld incomes.
The lack of opportunity for blacks was one of the first things Kenneth Board noticed when he came to Rockford from Stone Mountain, Ga. Board, who is now the senior pastor at Rockford’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, grew up in Shreveport, La. during the Jim Crow era. But he says he’s found more discrimination in Rockford than he did in the South. “If you were willing to work in the South, you could get a job and move up at least to middle-class,” he says. “Here, you can’t even get a job.”
Board says some of that goes back to the fact that so few employers hire anyone with a criminal record. The pastor sits on the board of the SwedishAmerican hospital system, one of the largest employers in town. He says he’s fought for years to get the system to remove its ban on hiring people with criminal histories, but to no avail. A black judge recently advised Board to tell his church members to stay out of trouble if they wanted a job working in the courts. “I said, ‘Everybody makes mistakes. You’ve made mistakes too,’” he remembers telling the judge.
The only way for job applicants to make their criminal history go away is to ask the courts to seal or expunge their record, and that’s not an easy process. When Gordon-Booth, the Peoria legislator, hosted her first expungement summit, volunteer lawyers took on the cases of 250 people to try to clear their records. (Later, 150 people would come to a similar event in Rockford.)
One of the event’s organizers, Beth Johnson, the director of legal programs at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, was surprised to see how often long-forgotten, low-level offenses were making it impossible to present a clean record.
“What was sticking out a lot was the number of arrests for ordinance violations and city violations and the number of times people were arrested for not paying those fines and fees,” Johnson says. Over time, those fees could add up to hundreds of dollars, and many people couldn’t afford to pay them off. Prosecutors were using the outstanding money owed as a way to block people from clearing their criminal records.
Even when Johnson and her fellow attorneys went to court, judges couldn’t expunge or conceal cases in which the person still owed money. Clients who could pay their fines got their cases expunged. But in Peoria, 127 of the 250 people who sought Johnson’s help couldn’t afford to pay off the fees or fines, and, therefore didn’t get expungements.
When they ran out of luck at the courthouse, Johnson and Gordon-Booth turned to the statehouse. Legislation Gordon-Booth drafted specified that courts can’t deny a request to seal someone’s criminal history because that person has an outstanding financial obligation to a state or local government. People who asked for their records to be sealed would still owe the outstanding fines, but they could clear their name and apply for a job that would allow them to work off the fines.
The politics were tricky. Prosecutors and county clerks originally objected to the idea, but they eventually backed off from their opposition. Even so, the bill passed the House with only three votes to spare, and it narrowly passed the Senate as well. But then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the measure into law, and it went into effect in August.
A Safe Place to Live
The Grove at Keith Creek houses 49 families on Rockford’s East Side, the traditionally white area of town, and, therefore, an unlikely location for a public housing project. The homes are connected, but each is visually distinct thanks to offset roofs, different colors, a variety of Craftsman-style elements, and a mix of more expensive brick and cement siding exteriors.The six-acre site is tucked into a residential neighborhood, and it includes a busy children’s playground at its heart. It’s a tidy, even inviting, development. But it was almost never built.
Clewer championed the idea of the Grove as the head of the Rockford Housing Authority. The agency was in the process of dismantling its rundown Fairgrounds Valley apartments on the West Side, and it was looking for places to relocate some of those residents. Clewer wanted a place that gave its residents access to better jobs and schools for their children than on the West Side. And he wanted amenities, like dishwashers, that weren’t available for low-income residents in other housing projects.
But his answer to those problems required taking on the local political system and challenging long-accepted patterns of segregation. Clewer tried to avoid a zoning fight by scaling his original project back to 49 units, just below the threshold of 50 units that would have triggered additional review. The city council, though, still had to approve the plat. Residents and city council members felt blindsided by the plans. Many of the project’s neighbors also worried that, by bringing in residents from the West Side, The Grove would attract crime. Clewer says the fight split the community along racial lines between the east and west sides. When the city council looked like it was stalling, Clewer’s agency sued to force a vote. With federal housing officials and fair housing advocates watching closely, the council narrowly approved the plan on a 7-5 vote.
Clewer tried shaking up other aspects of his agency’s mission, and, inevitably, he says, those efforts led to hard conversations about race. He worried about the condition of private apartments that low-income residents rented, with the help of Section 8 rental subsidies that RHA distributed. He stepped up inspections of the properties after discovering that many of them had never been inspected. Property owners bristled at the scrutiny, he says.
Then in 2016, Clewer tried to spur investment in affordable housing on the West Side by starting a private land trust. The trust would have acted like a mutual fund for development, with a portfolio that included both affordable housing and higher-end real estate. But the idea never got off the ground, because investors weren’t interested in affordable housing on the city’s West Side and other low-income pockets in Rockford.
Clewer says that taking on so many racially tinged fights at once — building The Grove, stepping up inspections of Section 8 landlords, pushing for affordable housing and changing the policing approach to housing projects — depleted his political capital.“It caused a lot of challenges in our community to think about race,” Clewer says, “but I think I did the right thing in making those conversations happen.”
Clewer feels vindicated by the success of The Grove. It did not, for example, lead to an increase in crime in the area. In fact, three weeks before The Grove opened, Rockford opened its new police headquarters across the street. “The Grove hasn’t been any issue at all,” says Rockford Police Chief Daniel O’Shea. “We were just doing a music video in our front lot … the sing-along thing, and we had half the neighborhood kids from The Grove hanging out. They’re actually in the video.” And residents who once were the most vocal opponents to The Grove now help walk school children from the public housing project to school.
Still, Clewer’s efforts hastened his exit. He attended the ribbon cutting at The Grove in September 2017, but not as the CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority. Clewer resigned from that position six months earlier. He still lives in Rockford, but, to get to his new job, he drives more than 90 miles each way every day to Milwaukee.