In 1993, now-Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) was an 18-year-old single mother of three, including a newborn. The baby's father was in jail.
Taylor was living with her mother in Bronzeville in a one-bedroom apartment; they turned the dining room into another bedroom. They shared the house with Taylor's brother and sister, as well as one of her babies. Taylor was in school at the time, at Dawson Technical Institute of Kennedy-King College.
"And so I wanted to have my own place," she said. "It was unacceptable in my house to not go to school or work, so I was in school. I wanted to get my own place, and a friend of mine said, 'Hey, you should apply for CHA (Chicago Housing Authority).' And I at the time was like, 'I ain't gonna get in.' I had already heard back then about people complaining about being on waitlists."`
But her friend convinced her that space was available at the Chicago Housing Authority's Trumbull Park Homes, 2455 E. 106th St., and Taylor applied.
Over the next 15 years, Taylor had two more children. She worked as a receptionist at H&R Block during the day and at a bar overnight, while her kids slept.
"You do what you've got to do when you're a mother," she said. "I tell people all the time, from September to April, People's Gas can't cut off your gas. So I wouldn't pay my bill. I would use it to catch up on things my kids needed: T-shirts, underwear, gym shoes. If they needed new coats and boots, I figured it out. I literally robbed Peter to pay Paul."
In the summer of 2008, a decade and a half after she first applied, the CHA called and told Taylor her Section 8 claim had come up. Her son had just graduated from high school, and he was not working or in school. Taylor says the CHA told her he could not be on her lease.
"I thought, 'I'm not going to choose between living in this place and kicking out my son. I'm going to choose my son,'" Taylor said, and she went back on the waitlist.
After that, in 2012, Taylor got priced out of Bronzeville and moved into the building where her mother lived in Woodlawn, converting a one-bedroom apartment's dining and living rooms into bedrooms for her two girls and three boys. A longtime local school council member, she started working full-time for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.
In a 2017 public forum, she fatefully butted heads with former President Barack Obama over a community benefits agreement and his presidential center. And two years after that, she won the 20th Ward aldermanic runoff election in a landslide.
And on May 20, 2022, the CHA wrote to her to say that her application for housing had been selected off the waiting list and that she could submit an application for eligibility by June 3. Taylor, as an alderwoman, now makes a six-figure salary; she said her CHA rent would be a percentage of that income and that she is not interested.
Taylor lives now in a five-bedroom apartment in Woodlawn, which she was originally only able to afford because of assistance from her mother, who worked for Chicago Public Schools and moved in with her. Taylor noted that professional activists do not earn a lot of money. After her mother died, the life insurance Taylor received enabled her to stay in her home until she got elected.
"I struggled during the election," Taylor said. "I would have preferred to work so that I had some income and it didn't seem like my mother was burdened, but literally I lived off of unemployment for a year."
She lives in debt today, having helped two children pay for post-secondary school and paid for two other kids' substantial medical bills. And then there are her own bills over the years: rent, light, gas, phones, her daughter's car.
Even with Taylor's high income today, she takes a dim view of homeownership, noting the displacement of Englewood residents because of the Norfolk Southern Railway Co.’s expansion into their neighborhood and rising property tax assessments that are forcing her constituents out of the ward.
"Do you know how many homeowners are about to lose their houses in my ward because of the property tax?" she asked. "They have houses that are paid, but because they can't pay the tax, they're going to lose it."
And Taylor said tenants call her ward office every day to say landlords are raising rents to such an extent that they can't stay in her ward.
"I have no means to help them, because a lot of these places have waitlists. CHA hasn't completed its promise of 100% rebuilt units from when they knocked down housing. And to be honest, Woodlawn was one of the cheapest places you could afford to live in the city, at least for me and my family," she said. "We damned sure couldn't afford to live in Hyde Park."
As an alderwoman, Taylor filed the Accountable Housing and Transparency Ordinance on April 27, which is intended to better connect vacancies in the city’s affordable housing programs with individuals in need. The ordinance is backed by a number of community action groups, including Woodlawn’s Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP).
"It basically says there are 120,000 people on the waiting list. The city should invest in affordable housing. They should make a list available. The wait times should be no longer than four years. They should make spaces to apply at the community organizations and schools. And we should see what our stock is," Taylor said. "Because we don't know what we got."
She noted the debates in Woodlawn over whether there is enough affordable housing, or how much housing there is, period. She also suggested that the city could raise money by having landlords register how many units they have and how much their rents are.
Had Taylor gotten housing in 1993 or 2008, she said she would have been able to do more for her children. She would have avoided the housing instability that prompted her move from Bronzeville to Woodlawn. She said she wouldn't have gone into so much debt; she could have paid her bills on time, in spite of the fact that she constantly worked.
"In my time of need, the city that I love and pay taxes to couldn't show up for me. They showed up for me 29 years later when I'm a little bit comfortable, which means I don't have to wait until I get paid to buy food," Taylor said. "And that's not just my reality. That's a lot of folks' reality."