Elephant in the Room: No Money, Mo’ Problems

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

“It’s a text-book example of institutional racism.”

This was University of Chicago Professor Chris Berry’s conclusion when he testified, last summer, before the County Board discussing the disparate impact felt by Cook County residents in their property tax assessments. If you’ve been following the news (or the election cycle), you may be aware that there have been some problems brewing with the Cook County Assessor’s Office. A study conducted by the University of Chicago showed a discrepancy where lower-priced homes were over-valued and higher-priced homes were lower-valued.  If this conclusion is correct, this system shifted the tax-paying burden to lower socio-economic neighborhoods; neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color.

The disparate implementation by the Assessor’s Office poses severe risks to lower-income neighborhoods—many people who often come to LAF seeking help. We see how the inability to keep a home decreases a family’s ability to create wealth; it requires them to make big financial sacrifices to keep their home—maybe their child’s college tuition can’t get paid, or they have to pick between paying the tax bill or medicine and groceries for the month. For those that can’t keep up with payments, they may feel forced to sell quickly, losing out on their investment. In dire cases, the county may sell the taxes to a tax-buyer and if the home owner cannot repay those taxes, the tax-buyer may take ownership of the home through a tax-deed.

This says nothing of the physical and mental stress people experience fighting to save their house, or the damage it inflicts on children who may have to move to new schools, or the depression an elderly parent may fall into when they can no longer afford their home.

Proponents of the current system argue that anyone has the right to appeal their assessment. And that is true, there is an appeals process. But just like so many complicated parts of our legal system, those that need access to this remedy have a more difficult time accessing it. U of C’s study found that wealthier neighborhoods appealed at a much higher rate than lower-value neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods also saw assessment reductions more frequently than poorer neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to be represented by attorneys as well. Attorneys, logically, target higher-income clients in order to reap higher rewards. In 2015, attorneys earned 22 million dollars in attorney’s fees involving assessment appeals. Unfortunately, for those living in lower-income neighborhoods, the return on investment for an attorney to file an appeal for a single-family home won’t match what that attorney could earn representing multi-unit condo associations. A person who is low-income, living in a low-income neighborhood, with a home that is valued high, but can only be sold for a much lower price, will be hard-pressed to find an affordable legal representative.

This is the gap LAF tries to bridge—we field calls from people on the verge of losing their home and our Consumer Practice Group steps in to help.  Some clients are advised on their right to appeal the tax assessment of their home. Other times we guide clients through obtaining the correct tax exemptions as home owners.  In cases where the clients have fallen too far behind in tax payments, we represent them in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows them to catch up on their payments in order to save their home.

The work we do doesn’t solve the disparate impact the assessor’s system has on our client communities, but by helping them fight in a system that is stacked against them, it reminds them that they have rights and tools available to protect their assets. More importantly, we create security and peace of mind for families who can return to their neighborhoods—to their homes–with the same sense of stability as those in richer zip-codes.

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Elephant in the Room: #MeToo

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

We are in the midst of a watershed moment in how we respond to sexual harassment at work. The #MeToo movement has created a demand for predators to be held accountable for their actions. Survivors are no longer overly-scrutinized and held to an unattainable standard, nor are the abuser’s actions ignored simply because they are good at their job. As we watch the dominoes fall in politics, media, and the entertainment industry, we will continue to see more and more outcry of sexual harassment in other industries, because as all women know—this happens everywhere. And while the focus has been on high-powered industries where the survivors are rich and glamourous women, we must not forget to listen to and defend low-wage workers. Because the truth is that the harassment that occurs on the casting couch is the same reprehensible harassment that happens in the back of the kitchen at your local restaurant.

Women make up the majority of the low-wage workforce in the U.S. and women of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs. These workers face rampant levels of harassment by coworkers, supervisors, and customers. Restaurant workers alone file the highest number of claims for sex harassment and retaliation with the EEOC than in any other field.

These workers face barriers in reporting their harassers at every turn:

  • An African-American housekeeper, hired through a temp-agency, may fear being attacked by a hotel guest, but is warned by others to not raise this issue to her manager as he may label her as “difficult,” which will result in the temp agency banning her.
  • A server receives lewd and graphic text messages by her coworker. When she approaches the manager he quickly dismisses her complaint because he is friends with the accused.
  • The farmworker, who picks the pumpkins for our thanksgiving pies, may decide not to report a sexual assault because she knows it will result in the loss of her work visa along with future prospects for jobs the following summer.

The common theme in the reluctance to report is not only the likelihood of being called a liar, but of how dependent the workers are on their jobs. Women working low-wage jobs aren’t able to simply find new employment the next day. Often the heads of households, they are charged with child-care, which requires flexible hours–something most jobs don’t offer. They may work paycheck to paycheck–a very real circumstance when women are rarely paid an equitable wage compared to their male counterparts; and face an even wider gap if they are women of color. And for immigrant workers, the language-barrier or lack of status, makes it seem impossible to find a job that is free of violence.

At LAF, we represent these clients; workers who have suffered workplace sexual violence and are attempting to enforce their rights. We fight to help them achieve justice. We are also proactive by training other worker rights’ advocates at our annual Modern Day American Worker conference. Most importantly, we believe women when they come to us for help.

It should then be no surprise that we celebrate Time’s person of the year selection and see glimmers of our clients’ faces–the dishwasher, the factory worker, the custodian–on the cover. We hope you see them as well and that you take a stand to believe and defend them.

Elephant in the Room: Who Is Worthy of an Education?

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

kidsPop quiz: who should decide which children deserve access to special education assistance?

  1. A) Parents
  2. B) Teachers
  3. C) Medical professionals
  4. D) Process improvement experts

If you are in charge of the country’s third largest school district you opt for process improvement experts who have no experience in special education or the unique needs of Chicago Public School students. Recently, a WBEZ investigation revealed how Chicago Public Schools underwent a secretive process to overhaul their procedures on how students may access special education services. CPS, through its process improvement auditors, created a “Procedural Manual” aiming to equally distribute services with more standardization. However, the new procedures ultimately resulted in CPS providing less financial support for all schools along with higher burdens placed on parents who must advocate and fight for their children’s services. According to the WBEZ report, the auditors focused less on connecting students with needed services and more on identifying ways to reduce costs by cutting services the auditors deemed unnecessary. Worse yet, CPS did not inform most parents of the manual’s existence leaving them in the dark as to why their children’s essential services were denied. CPS students are primarily students of color, living in poverty. It’s common for poor minorities to be viewed with suspicion when they seek help, yet one would think that small children with disabilities would be excluded from this type of distrust. Sadly, they are not. CPS’ new process resulted in an increase of hurdles, requirements, and delays in desperately needed services. Students with disabilities and their families, already marginalized, suffered the brunt of this harmful new policy.

For those of us that practice in special education law the result is no surprise. Students of color, particularly black students, are frequently left out of the Special Ed equation. They are less likely to be referred to programs; less likely to be given modifications and accommodations; and schools with high populations of minority students are less likely to receive the funding necessary to provide for those students with special needs. The lack of access to appropriate special education services leads to more problems. For example, students with unidentified and unmet social-emotional needs are commonly subjected to discriminatory school disciplinary actions and exclusions. Others students simply fall behind academically and are unable to fully participate in their education.

LAF has been at the forefront of this issue for years. In 2013, we sued CPS for discriminating against children with disabilities, seeking a court order to stop one of the 49 school closures that occurred that year. Those closures resulted in a disparate impact on students with disabilities, because the formula that CPS used to select schools for closure did not include a reasonable accommodation for schools that served large populations of students with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Now students with disabilities face a new barrier to appropriate services.  Last school year, when CPS created the Procedural Manual, CPS parents began to call us to help their children, who suddenly were going without their much needed resources. We advocated for dozens of individual clients who were denied special education services due to the new goals set forth by this manual.  We also began fighting for transparency and systemic change. We collaborated with other local agencies including Access Living, Legal Council for Health Justice, Equip for Equality, and the Children’s Law Group. After months of advocacy, CPS amended their manual with some improvement. However, there is still a long fight ahead to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable youth are granted access to programs and assistance they so desperately need. LAF intends to continue our fight both for our individual clients and for larger systemic change — so that all CPS students with disabilities are given the services they are entitled to under the law.

Elephant in the Room: When your ZIP Code Makes you Sick

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Recently the Sinai Urban Health Institute released the findings from its Sinai Community Health Survey 2.0.  The study is the largest face-to-face public health survey ever conducted in Chicago. The Surveyors interviewed residents from nine different Chicago community areas, focusing on sixteen health-related topics, like obesity. The data revealed alarming and stark health inequities that exist between neighborhoods and demographic groups.

 

Researchers found health inequities in all sixteen health indicators, but non-Hispanic Black adults, as well as adults of Puerto Rican or Mexican origin, were most affected, with one in three reporting fair or poor health status. Females of Puerto Rican origin had the most physically unhealthy days in the past month at 8.4 days; adults of Puerto Rican origin reported an average of five or more mentally unhealthy days in the past month.

We often don’t realize that barriers to health are linked to other systemic and structural issues. For example, in North Lawndale, West Englewood, Humboldt Park, Chicago Lawn, and Gage Park, over half of female residents are obese. Those neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores that provide access to fresh, healthful food choices, and fewer parks and green spaces than the North Side neighborhood featured in the study. Residents in those neighborhoods have the highest levels of food insecurity, meaning they don’t have money for more expensive, perishable food choices.

Sinai also surveyed health insurance coverage and usage. Since insurance is the primary way people fund health care needs and expenses, the Affordable Care Act (2010) enabled millions of uninsured individuals to obtain coverage through the expansion of Medicaid and tax credits for marketplace plans. People with insurance are more likely to use health services for preventative care and more likely to have a “health care home”—a regular clinic or provider. This can lead to improved health outcomes and reduced overall health care costs. The study revealed a statistically significant difference in the percentage of adults without health insurance based on race or ethnic group. For example, adults of Mexican origin had an uninsured rate of 36%, compared to a rate of 8% for non-Hispanic White adults. The study also indicated that about one in six adults in Gage Park did not get needed medical care or surgery in the past year due to cost. The percentage by race shows that Non-Hispanic Black adults were most likely not to get medical care due to cost.

This kind of community-level data is valuable to get a snapshot of what is actually happening in the communities LAF serves, because City-wide data often masks the experience of people living in poverty in Chicago. Data like this helps us use our resources effectively and efficiently to address structural issues that keep people in poverty, and unhealthy, in Chicago.

For example, LAF participates in a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) with Erie Family Health Centers, which primarily serves Humboldt Park, West Town, and Lawndale, as well as the new Health Forward/Salud Adelante MLP, a collaboration with the Cook County Public Health System, which serves Garfield Park and Back of the Yards (adjacent to the surveyed neighborhoods). Many of our clients from these programs share demographic qualities with the subject of Sinai’s study: they are Puerto Rican or African-American, with physical disabilities and behavioral health challenges. Through these MLPs, where doctors refer clients with legal issues that affect their health, we are able to help treat their issues holistically. We help clients obtain medical insurance so they can get the full range of health care they need, enroll them in SNAP benefits so they can buy food, ensure they have adequate heat, and address hazardous living conditions that cause them and their children to suffer from asthma.

The work LAF is doing with our MLPs is targeting these very disparities and helping people get and stay healthy regardless of where they live.