On a 100-degree day last summer, on Chicago’s southernmost edge, Willie Fleming, who goes by J. R. (“It stands for Just Righteousness”), crept up to an abandoned ranch house shrouded in overgrown weeds. The overwhelmingly poor and Black neighborhood sits beside a 150-acre, 1,500-unit public-housing complex and is about as far — literally and figuratively — from the Loop as you can get and still be in Chicago. Nearly a quarter of the homes in the area had been empty for at least two years. Usually when J. R. scouts for properties to break into and take over, he looks for ones with unmown grass, a sign of vacancy and disregard. But this was excessive. “I don’t come back here without my air gun,” he said, backing away. A young couple next door had set up lawn chairs on the sidewalk. An infant in only a diaper tottered around them. “That’s the dead-dog cemetery,” the man announced, motioning to the ranch house.
J. R. told the couple about the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the group he founded in 2009 with Toussaint Losier, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago and a fellow housing activist. At 40, J. R. possesses the softening bulk of a former running back — he was all-state as a high-school sophomore. A skunklike streak of white runs up the center of his ringleted black dreadlocks. In the past year, he said, the Anti-Eviction Campaign freed up 20 abandoned properties, fixing up the buildings and moving “home-less people into the people-less homes.”
As hard as the foreclosure crisis hit Chicago, its force has been felt with an unevenness that can seem fiendishly unjust. The U.S. Postal Service, which tracks these numbers, reported that 62,000 properties in Chicago were vacant at the end of last year, with two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Currently about 40 percent of all homeowners in these communities owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, and countywide 80,000 foreclosures are wending their way through circuit court. Last spring, a nine-month study conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance revealed what everyone in these neighborhoods already knew: After forcing out families in foreclosure, banks failed to properly market, maintain and secure the vacated homes. Thieves subsequently entered many of the properties and stripped them of copper and anything else that could be trafficked. J. R. couldn’t reconcile the idea that homes were being allowed to turn into wrecks with the fact that the city had a shortage of 120,000 units of affordable housing and some 100,000 people sleeping in shelters or on the street each year. Chicago didn’t have just a housing crisis, he offered, it had a moral crisis.