Applying a racial equity framework to ending homelessness in Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Applying a racial equity framework to ending homelessness in Illinois

Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans. We need to reprioritize resources within a racial equity framework to change that. 

Bernie Kleina

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Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans.

This startling statistic comes from a recently published policy brief by Housing Action Illinois, Black and White Disparities in Homelessness, which analyzes newly available federal data released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Although we knew before examining the data that Black people experience homelessness more than White people, it was important to us to find out the severity of the disparity and its geographic scope in order to develop policy responses. We discovered that even among those living in poverty, Black Illinoisans are disproportionately more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans. Black Illinoisans make up 14% of our state population, but 30% of residents experiencing poverty and 59% of residents experiencing homelessness.

The Black-White racial disparity is evident throughout Illinois—in urban, suburban, and rural communities, as well as in communities where few Black people live or where many Black people live. By calculating racial equity severity scores for each region of Illinois, our policy brief contextualizes the HUD data on a state level. Chicago has by far the highest severity of Black-White racial inequity, as it has a high overall rate of homelessness compared to other areas of the state, and those people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately Black. There are other areas with greater rates of racial inequity in homelessness than Chicago, such as northwestern Illinois, but with relatively low rates of homelessness.

While considering data on homelessness, it is important to acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining accurate numbers; it is very hard to know how many people in Illinois are experiencing homelessness at any given moment. There are various definitions of homelessness in use, and understandably, there are people who do not want to share that they lack housing. For our policy brief, we relied on HUD data from federally mandated Point-in-Time counts, a census of sheltered and unsheltered people on a single night.

No one should have to experience homelessness, and systemic inequities have led to a large Black-White racial gap in those who do.

Although definitions and numbers get muddy, some things are clear: no one should have to experience homelessness, and systemic inequities have led to a large Black-White racial gap in those who do. Decades of segregation and discrimination, as well as a history of vastly unequal government investments, are part of what have brought us to this point. To redress past wrongs, there are steps we can take to dismantle these systems and make progress in ending racial disparities related to homelessness—a necessary step toward ending all homelessness.

To start, we can adopt a racial equity framework for housing initiatives and implementation of services to analyze where policies are impacted by implicit and explicit bias, as well as individual, institutional, and structural racism. Designing policies and targeting spending to promote racial equity in housing is another key component of such a framework.

For example, Illinois’ recent $200 million investment in affordable housing in our state’s first major capital budget in a decade provides an opportunity to put these values into practice. As they determine how to spend these resources, decision-makers should consider the impact on promoting racial equity, including addressing racial disparities in homelessness. One way to do this would be to prioritize these resources for extremely low-income households that need supportive housing (housing combined with additional supportive services) to end their homelessness.

Another key part of using a racial equity framework in an affordable housing context is looking more closely at the impact of the income eligibility guidelines that determine who is able to live in subsidized housing. “Affordable housing” means different things to different people, and common definitions actually have a wide range of affordability. Most programs define affordability based on a certain percentage of the area median family income. For example, serving people who earn 60% of the median family income for the Chicago metropolitan area is a common standard for rental housing programs, including the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and Chicago’s Affordable Rental Ordinance (ARO).

However, because the median family income for Black households is generally around half that of White households, available resources do not go as far as they could to address racial inequities. According to recent U.S. Census data, the median family income in the Chicago metropolitan area in 2017 was $83,053.[1] However, for White families, this figure was $95,446. For Black households, the median family income was $48,047, while the median family income for Hispanic or Latino households was $53,217. Therefore, a significantly lower percentage of families of color can afford the homes created by these programs compared to White households.

The income gap based on race is even starker if one looks just at the City of Chicago. For example, the median family income in Chicago in 2017 was $61,618. For White families in Chicago it was $85,344 and for Black families it was $39,572. There isn’t easily accessible data for the median family income of Black renter families, but undoubtedly it’s even lower. There are programs that are designed to serve families who are extremely low income, such as federal Housing Choice Vouchers, but the resources for those programs fall very short of the need.

We need to look at reprioritizing existing resources within a racial equity framework and ensure that new resources and policies do their best to change a landscape where Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans.

Because creating quality affordable housing requires a significant public and private investment, and people with the lowest incomes can afford to pay relatively little rent to contribute to the operating costs of rental housing, addressing racial inequities will be very challenging. If spent with a racial equity framework in mind, Illinois’ recent $200 million capital budget investment will be an important step in the right direction, though a small step within the context of the overall need. We need to look at reprioritizing existing resources within a racial equity framework and ensure that new resources and policies do their best to change a landscape where Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans.

[1] Data for median family income in the past 12 months (in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars) from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Data for the Chicago metropolitan area only includes Illinois population. The calculations for subsidized housing income eligibility use somewhat different formulas based on special tabulations by HUD.

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