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Budget cuts threaten a user-friendly recourse for victims of discrimination

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For two months last summer Annette McClinton and some of her six children lived out of a car because a south-side housing complex had denied them housing. The operators of the housing complex, Antioch Haven Homes, say they denied housing to McClinton because even their biggest three-bedroom apartments are too small for a family of seven. But McClinton said it was discrimination and took her case to the city.

McClinton is still homeless, although she's slightly better off than she was; she's temporarily living with friends. Meanwhile, her sad case is winding its way through an unheralded and soon to be underfunded adjudication process administered by the city's Commission on Human Relations.

Since the process was implemented in 1990, more than 400 complaints of discrimination (racial, religious, and sexual preference) have been filed in matters of housing, employment, credit, or public accommodation (a person's right not to be turned away from a restaurant, say, or a movie theater). The commission investigates each complaint and attempts to broker a settlement; if reconciliation fails, the case is assigned to a hearing officer.

Most cases can be resolved within a few months, unlike discrimination cases filed in court or before state or federal agencies, which can drag on for years. "We like to think that we're user-friendly," says Constance Bauer, a deputy commissioner. "You don't need a lawyer to file a complaint; you can just walk into our office and fill out a form."

The adjudication process was created as part of a controversial overhaul of the Commission on Human Relations conceived by Commissioner Clarence Wood at Mayor Daley's urging. The commission, created after World War II, had shied away from controversial matters for decades. Except for a brief period in 1966, when it helped broker an open-housing deal between Richard J. Daley and Martin Luther King Jr., its existence was largely irrelevant.

That didn't change much, even during Mayor Harold Washington's reign. Instead of empowering the commission, Washington organized four separate advisory councils on Latino, gay and lesbian, Asian American, and women's affairs. His purpose, he said, was to create a voice in City Hall for the voiceless. The councils were also a skillful way for Washington to expand his political base outside the black community.

Under Mayor Eugene Sawyer new advisory councils were created for African, Arab, immigrant and refugee, and veterans' affairs. Despite their budgets and staffs, the councils had limited authority. They might denounce discrimination, but there was no place outside the courts where a person could file a specific charge and seek redress.

So with Daley's blessing, Wood drafted the adjudication process. He also proposed to bring the advisory councils under the commission's umbrella, trimming their budgets along the way. As far as Wood was concerned, special-interest groups were of little value in the overall war against discrimination.

"We're 25 years into the civil rights agenda and what we have not been able to do is win the war against racism," says Wood. "Our effort in that war is diluted by special-interest groups binding themselves to the civil rights legislation. If we wanted to eradicate racism we could eradicate other -isms as well. But we have to stop balkanizing and tribalizing."

When Wood's proposal came before the City Council in early 1990, it sparked instantaneous outrage among feminists and gay activists as well as an unusually topsy-turvy aldermanic fight.

In the process, the adjudication proposal was virtually ignored, even though there were plenty of reasons to oppose or at least debate the matter. Daley and Wood were proposing to give commission investigators subpoena power and grant hearing officers the authority to award monetary damages. And although all decisions had to be reviewed by the full commission (a 21-member group appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council), aldermen would have no direct say in their decisions. Furthermore, it could have been argued that the process would encourage a proliferation of spurious charges and expose small businesses to indefensible discrimination complaints.

Yet none of these points were raised. Instead, the white aldermen from the southwest and northwest sides--who had battled all of Washington's civil rights initiatives--obediently supported the mayor, as they do almost all the time. (It should be noted, however, that the council did amend Wood's proposal to exempt aldermen and their staffs from the discrimination laws.)

Opposition came from an unlikely source: the ragtag coalition of white, black, and Hispanic independents left over from the Washington days. They did not specifically object to the adjudication proposal; they denounced the whole package because they didn't like the idea of destroying the advisory councils. "It was strange how the council voted," says Wood. "We got support and opposition from where we least expected it. I guess that's politics in Chicago."

The final package passed on March 21 by a vote of 32 to 13; a few months later the adjudication procedure was in place, coincidentally just as Annette McClinton's housing problems were getting started.

She had already been homeless for several months when on November 26, 1990, she read a newspaper ad for subsidized housing at the Antioch Haven Homes at 420 W. 63rd St. It seemed like a dream come true. The complex, developed by a not-for- profit affiliate of a local church and financed with Housing and Urban Development subsidies, was clean and well managed. McClinton visited the complex and filled out an application.

A few weeks later Antioch turned her down. In disappointment, McClinton called Antioch and talked to the complex manager, who told her that HUD regulations prohibit occupancy by more than six in a three-bedroom apartment.

At the time, McClinton and her children were living with a girlfriend on the west side. She had no job, job training, or high school diploma. She was living on general assistance; the father of her children provided almost no support. Her parents had died and she had lost access to the family house. When the manager of her friend's building began to complain, McClinton moved in with another friend in the Henry Horner Homes. But that didn't work out. For two months in the early summer she camped out in her car. Some of her children lived with her; others lived with their father.

"It was depressing and embarrassing," says McClinton. "I parked in the parking lot of an apartment complex where a friend lived because I thought I might be safer there from all the lunatics in the street. I thought to myself, 'How did this happen to me?' I was a good student in school. I loved English; I loved to read. I wondered: 'Where did I go wrong?'"

In April she read an article about the city's new adjudication procedures. A few weeks later she came to the commission's office (on her own, without a lawyer) and officially charged Antioch with discrimination based on parental status. After several months of investigation and an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation, a hearing was held on October 30.

Lawyers and witnesses for Antioch (including civil rights activist Kale Williams) argued that the complex's occupancy standards were necessary to prevent the kind of overcrowding that has destroyed many other low-income projects.

"This charge is not only a lie, it is an offense against the dignity and purpose for which Antioch stands," said Robert Tucker, a lawyer for Antioch, in his opening statement. "Antioch is an oasis of family living in . . . Englewood. It is a community of families and children. In order to guarantee the safety of residents, some reasonable standards, flexibly applied, are not only necessary but appropriate."

McClinton's lawyer, Julie Biehl, disagreed. "Under the city code, a family of seven would need 675 square feet, and this apartment was 1,200 square feet," she says. "They have this huge living room that was over 200 feet. Why can't they make that room a bedroom for the baby?"

It was a disturbing case with no easy solutions. The viability of many low-income housing complexes does depend on reducing congestion, and it's generally accepted that housing managers should have leeway in screening tenants. Yet McClinton and her children obviously needed--and still need--help. The hearing judge has until late December to rule on McClinton's request for housing and damages from Antioch. "The key in any case is to keep it from dragging on forever," says Bauer. "We don't want people to get lost in the system."

But that goal may become more difficult; Mayor Daley has proposed to slash the commission's budget from $3.1 to $2.5 million. As a result three investigators will be fired even as the number of discrimination cases rises.

"It's frustrating because $800,000 of my budget still goes for the special councils," says Wood. "You have to ask yourself in times of need which is more important: special councils or adjudication? The system's not perfect, but at least it enabled [McClinton] to have her day in court."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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