The Right to Know

 Josefina de la Cruz’s migration history does not stop at her arrival from Mexico in 1972, but continues through five different Chicago neighborhoods, most recently West Humboldt Park. Like thousands of other poor, immigrant families forced from their communities by gentrification, de la Cruz feared that rising taxes would push her and her three children out again. In recent years, West Humboldt Park had begun to feel the squeeze of gentrification, as condominiums replaced older three-floor apartment buildings and single-family homes, and sparkling new cafes replaced abandoned corner stores. Unwilling to move her family to yet another unknown place and start all over again, de la Cruz joined together with hundreds of her neighbors to fight not only for her home, but for the rights of immigrants across Cook County.

The initial battle centered on property tax relief for residents systematically denied access to basic information. Although programs existed to reduce the property tax burden, the county sent the information to homeowners in English only, despite the growing population of Spanish-speaking residents. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos make up 26 percent of Chicago’s 2.9 million residents and nearly 20 percent of Cook County’s five million. Within the county’s Spanish-speaking population, approximately 500,000 people speak English “less than very well.”

These residents were missing out on information critical not just to their pocketbooks, but to their ability to continue living in their communities. An exemption can save homeowners up to $450 annually in property taxes and offers senior citizens the option of freezing their property assessment to ensure future affordability or saving an additional $250 in taxes. In short, an exemption can mean the difference between homeownership and displacement. By not informing the Spanish-speaking residents of West Humboldt Park and across Cook County of their right to apply for property tax relief, the county was abetting their displacement. “We knew that there were plans for our community supported by policies that hurt the residents,” says de la Cruz. “It was time to unite to change the racist policies that have repeatedly pushed people like me out of our homes and communities.”

Now, de la Cruz and other members of Blocks Together (BT), a resident-led community organization in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park and North Garfield Park neighborhoods, are celebrating the successful outcome of their campaign to bring bilingual information on property tax exemptions to every homeowner in Cook County. In a year-long fight that came to be about more than taxes, community residents tackled issues from gentrification and displacement to racial segregation and discrimination.

A Disturbing Pattern

From the beginning, residents recognized the disturbing pattern of displacement among low-income immigrant families. They understood that access to information was the first step toward fairness, equality and, ultimately, community stability. In February 2002, after going door-to-door and speaking with more than 1,000 residents, BT organized a public meeting with county officials to demand better access to information on tax-saving programs. A panel of community members presented strong testimonies and arguments to more than 350 residents, calling on them to join in the fight against displacement, beginning with the demand for bilingual tax information. In response, Cook County Assessor James Houlihan committed to sending information to homeowners citywide in English and Spanish and sponsoring local bilingual tax workshops.

But, as the exemption application deadline approached in May, residents still had not received information in Spanish. Fifteen BT leaders made a surprise visit to the assessor’s office, bringing in the press and accusing Houlihan of ignoring the community and breaking his promises. Houlihan agreed to work together with BT and to consider creating a bilingual mailing for the following year. The Chicago Sun-Times covered the story in an article entitled “Residents Want Spanish Tax Booklet,” quoting BT leader Martha Ramos as saying, “When we pay our taxes and you spend our money, it makes no difference what language we speak… All we are asking for is something within our rights.”

The following week, the Sun-Times printed two scathing anti-immigrant letters to the editor, insisting that the Spanish-speaking residents of Cook County “buy a tax booklet” and “learn English.” One writer stated, “I don’t feel like letting my hard-earned money be spent on something so trivial.” In order to not align himself with the authors’ viewpoints, Houlihan wrote a letter in support of bilingual materials and repeated his commitment to serve every county homeowner equally and fairly.

In the weeks that followed, BT maintained pressure on the county through the media. On the May 13 application deadline, leader Maria Cabrera gave a live interview on WBEZ radio, the local affiliate of National Public Radio. assuring the show’s host and listeners that BT would win a bilingual mailing by the 2003 deadline.

After lobbying hard for a follow-up meeting, BT members came to the negotiating table with the deputy assessor for communication and policy in August. Their demand was simple: send a bilingual mailing on property tax exemptions in 2003. The deputy agreed and accepted a sample mailing from BT as a model. Three weeks later, the group met again to determine the structure and content of the mailing, ensuring that people of all educational backgrounds would understand their rights.

Through the participation of thousands of residents in public meetings, hearings, demonstrations and negotiations, BT won not only a commitment for an annual trilingual mailing (a third language, Polish, was added by the assessor’s office), but also a role in creating content to guarantee accessibility for all homeowners.

Lessons Learned

As BT leaders recognized and numerous studies have shown, if low- to moderate-income residents cannot afford to keep their homes, neighborhoods that are targeted for redevelopment like West Humboldt Park will ultimately give way entirely to gentrification. Furthermore, if specific groups within this population are denied their right to information, the reduction in homeownership and increased poverty among immigrants and other marginalized populations can be staggering.

A dedicated group of Housing Committee members led the campaign and made important strategic decisions at every turn. “We learned that to insist and insist time and time again is how to win the fight,” says de la Cruz. “We did not give up until we had won, and that was the key to our campaign.” When it became clear that Houlihan had no intention of fulfilling his public commitment, the Housing Committee called an emergency meeting and agreed to go to Houlihan’s office the next morning. These committed leaders expressed their outrage to the press, gave immediacy and weight to the issue and formed the backbone of the campaign. Their personal testimonies shed light on the real-life experiences of thousands and repeatedly attracted television, radio and print media to the issue.

With the spotlight on the experience of immigrant families and non-English speaking residents, county officials were forced to confront the implications of a policy that rewarded English-speakers and punished non-English speakers. Attracting mainstream press to the group’s cause expanded the focus of the campaign from the local to the countywide level and placed additional pressure on county officials to respond. “The press helped pressure Houlihan publicly to make translation a priority and pay attention to the needs of the growing Latino community in Cook County,” says Cabrera.

In opening up a race-conscious dialogue among the community, the press and county officials, it became impossible to ignore how racist housing policies affect segregation, gentrification and community instability.

Blocks Together is now focusing on combating high-end development in the neighborhood and arguing for real affordability, defined by residents on their own terms. By starting with the seemingly basic issue of access to information, familiarizing leaders with county bureaucracy and building a committed group of residents, BT is now in a position to launch other affordable housing campaigns. As an organization, it is continuing conversations about the racial dimensions of its work, understanding race as a nucleus for discussion, agitation, mobilization and systemic change. BT is recognizing that the lack of affordable housing (or lack of educational, youth and other community resources) does not stand alone. Rather, these issues offer a compelling framework for revealing larger class and race issues that are often silent in organizing, and silenced by our society.

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