Latinos See Bias in Elgin’s Fight Against Blight

By Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post. Monday 29 May 2000 ; A01

ELGIN, Ill.—Eight months pregnant, Sabrina Roman was watching television with her 2-year-old son when she heard an urgent knock out front. She pushed herself up from the couch, opened the front door and found herself face-to-face with a city inspector and a police officer.

Everyone in the house had to leave immediately or face arrest, she recalls the inspector saying. Roman said her understanding was that they were being thrown out, in part, because there were mattresses on the basement floor, which city officials took as a sure sign that people were living there illegally.

Roman, 21, says she pleaded that no one lived in the basement, that the mattresses were there because her family laid on them to watch television. But the inspector was not hearing it. He slapped a red notice on the door declaring the house uninhabitable and told Roman, who was due to deliver any day, to gather some belongings and leave. Before long, Roman was walking 15 blocks through a cold, December rain to her grandmother’s house.

I couldn’t believe they would just put us out like that, she said. I was mad. I was really angry.

Many Latinos here see bias in the tougher enforcement. But many non-Latino whites see only an aging city struggling to maintain safety standards and beat back creeping blight caused by an influx of hard-working but low-income residents. Those differing perceptions have heightened racial tensions in Elgin, as they have elsewhere.

A national poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that racial groups differ sharply over the amount of discrimination they believe is faced by Latinos. More than half of the nation’s Latinos—55 percent—say that discrimination against Latinos is a big problem. By contrast, only 27 percent of non-Latino whites and 44 percent of blacks view discrimination against Latinos as a major concern.

The poll, based in part on a random telephone survey of 2,417 self-identified Latinos last summer, also found that two in five Latinos say they, a family member or close friend have experienced discrimination in the past five years because of their race or ethnicity.

In almost a half-dozen of the small towns that ring Chicago, there is evidence that discrimination against Latinos does exist as longtime residents and municipal governments grapple with changing population in the region. Still, the poll and interviews with whites and Latinos suggest there exists a gap in perceptions about just how much discrimination Latinos face. And some of that discrimination, the poll suggests, is fueled by stereotypes that whites—and blacks—have of Latinos, which exaggerate the number of them who are in this country illegally and are dependent on welfare.

Evidence of Targeting

In recent years, the cities of Cicero, Addison and Waukegan each have been faced with federal action that has forced them to back off of laws or policies found to illegally target Latinos.

We’ve experienced a considerable backlash, said Carlos R. DeJesus, executive director of Latinos United, a housing advocacy group. We’re caught in a situation where the Chicago area has become a rather inhospitable place for Latinos to live.

Just over a year ago, four police cars stopped in front of Lucina Zaragoza’s two-story bungalow here, and the officers delivered a stunning message: Vacate the upstairs apartment within days or everyone in the house would be arrested.

Zaragoza and her husband, Jose, disabled hospital workers, had rented out the makeshift apartment since buying the house in 1976. But now, they were told, they were exceeding the home’s occupancy limit.

I told the police, ‘You don’t have the right to come over and scare my grandkids and myself,’ Zaragoza said.

The next day, the couple found a lawyer who persuaded the city to back off. The city is doing something wrong here, Zaragoza said. The inspectors bother only the Mexican people.

Clay Pearson, a spokesman for the city of Elgin, said despite some perceptions, the city enforces its housing code fairly and evenly. Almost always, he said, inspections are followed up by warning notices before evictions.

We’ve done a lot to promote education, he said. Some of it is a lack of knowing what the expectations are.

In the case of Sabrina Roman, the city rescinded the notice that the home was uninhabitable after Roman’s mother, Adela Gonzalez, complained about the treatment of her daughter and the inspection. We live here. The rent is paid, Gonzalez said. This makes me angry because of the fact my family was subjected to this.

The battles now roiling Elgin are hardly new. Generations ago municipalities used similar occupancy codes to limit the number of black, Jewish, Irish or Italian residents. Now, those efforts are taking on anti-Latino tones.

All of a sudden people were going in the back yards and hearing Spanish spoken or seeing people congregating on stoops or in their yards, said Joan Laser, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, whose office has challenged housing ordinances in several Illinois towns as discriminatory. In some ways people were living a different lifestyle, but they were not doing anything the least bit offensive.

Mistaken Impressions

Some of the fear may be rooted in the mistaken perceptions many Americans have of their Latino neighbors. A separate Post/Kaiser/Harvard telephone survey of 1,016 adults last August found, for example, that many whites and blacks overestimate the share of Latinos who live in poverty, are illegal immigrants or receive welfare.

Half of both blacks and whites said that they believe at least half of the nation’s Latinos live in poverty. The Latino poverty rate, meanwhile, is nearly 26 percent, about half the perceived amount.

Similarly, about six in 10 of those polled think that most of the Latinos who came to the United States in the past decade were illegal immigrants. In reality, about one in four Latinos who have immigrated to the United States since 1992 came illegally, according to INS estimates.

Also, more than a third of the poll’s respondents said that at least half of the nation’s legal Latino residents collect welfare. In fact, about 6.9 percent of the nation’s Latinos over age 15 receive either public assistance or federal disability payments. Or just over a quarter receive welfare, if that definition is broadened to include housing assistance or Medicaid.

In Elgin, 35 miles northwest of Chicago, immigrants have long been vital to the local economy, and as long as a century ago the city’s population was nearly a quarter foreign-born and business boomed. Then, the immigrants were mostly from Germany and Sweden, and they worked in the local foundry or the sprawling watch factory that at its peak employed 4,000 people and made Elgin watches a household name.

After the old economy faded and the city and surrounding towns spent decades in the doldrums, business is once again humming. Now Elgin’s immigrants are largely Latino, mostly from Mexico, and their growing presence is lubricating the economy even as it reveals a fundamental dilemma. On one hand, Elgin needs low-cost workers to clean the malls, run the hospital laundry and staff the small factories that are creating a bounty of new jobs and giving the area new economic life.

But few of those jobs pay well, and the area has little low-income housing, leaving the heavily Latino work force left to share homes and apartments. But that practice has ignited one of the biggest and most divisive issues facing local government.

From 1995 to 1998, Elgin issued 268 citations for occupancy code violations, and two-thirds of them went to families with Hispanic surnames. Hundreds of other Latinos, many of whom speak little English, say they have been confronted with confounding threats of eviction or arrest after their landlords were cited with code violations.

These kinds of code issues, even if they were on the books, would not be enforced if this community were all white, said Bernie J. Kleina, executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center, an advocacy group preparing to file a complaint with federal officials alleging that Elgin’s housing code enforcement discriminates against Latinos. You should not see that kind of extreme enforcement actions unless there is some sort of pressing health or safety concern.

But longtime residents such as Jack Wentland say the enforcement is not at all about race.

I know a neighbor who got really upset when he saw people going in and out of a house on the block, Wentland said. Well, rather than dialoguing he called the inspector and reported that there was a [Latino] family on the block that seemed to have people sleeping in the basement. But from his point of view, this was not racially motivated.

Indeed, many homeowners here say this issue has nothing to do with discrimination, but instead reflects their desire to protect their property values and way of life.

If you are paying one property tax and have two or three families living in a house, that is not fair to the rest of us, said Betsy Couture, an Elgin community leader. You are demanding more in service than you pay in taxes.

Certainly, evidence of crowded homes is abundant in Elgin. Many of the city’s old clapboard houses have stairways going up their backs or sides, leading to additions that have been built through the years. Former single-family homes have four or five mailboxes nailed haphazardly outside the front door. Some driveways have been expanded into small parking lots that can accommodate four or five cars. Meanwhile, in other areas, the crowding is changing the character of tree-lined streets where residents’ cars once fit neatly into driveways and garages but now line the curbs.

Here in Elgin, these homes are not clustered into an ethnic enclave that is visible to most outsiders. Instead, they often are within sight of single-family houses that typically are owned by whites—giving the issue an unsettling racial dimension that is expanding with the city’s Latino population. As recently as 1980, one in 10 of Elgin’s 64,000 residents were Latino. Now, an estimated one in four of Elgin’s 87,000 residents are Latino.

Between October 1998 and last May, seven Latino families in Elgin filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charging that city inspectors illegally targeted Latinos for enforcement. The families complained that even an anonymous complaint from a neighbor could subject them to home searches from city inspectors. At times, it was alleged, the English-speaking inspectors would not get permission before entering the homes of residents who often speak only Spanish.

It can be scary, said Andrea Fiebig, adult literacy director at the Elgin YWCA. I’ve had people say they don’t know who came through their door at 7 a.m.

Under pressure from HUD, Elgin officials late last year agreed to alter their enforcement process by setting regular inspection hours, requiring evidence to support anonymous complaints before launching an inspection and using bilingual forms that allow residents to authorize searches. The city also agreed to pay the seven complainants a total of $10,000.

But housing advocates have called that settlement inadequate. Meanwhile, the city has continued to do inspections and evictions, some of which hit Latino families with little or no warning.

My tenants keep asking me, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ said James Kawa, whose three-unit building was marked for eviction by Elgin officials. They see this [eviction] sticker on their door and ask, ‘Do we have to move? Do we have to go?’

Others believe the city’s new Latino residents must become better attuned to their neighbors.

This society definitely has expectations and frowns on people who do not fulfill them. We expect you not to park cars on grass and not to ride bikes around other people’s yards, which are not expectations you learn growing up on a rancho, said Audrey Reed, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and is director of the Centro de Informacion, a community service agency.

Sense of Family

Ironically, the issue polarizing many Latinos and whites here—overcrowding—grows out of a trait that many whites and blacks say they admire about Latinos: their sense of family.

The poll found that many Americans respect the work ethic and family values of Latinos. Half of blacks and one in four whites polled said Latinos work harder than whites. Another 62 percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks said there was no difference in how hard whites and Latinos work. Also, four in 10 blacks and whites agree that Latinos are generally more family-oriented than whites, while about half say the two groups are equal on this front.

The culture of many Latinos is to get a home, then have other family members come to share it, said Cherie Murphy, president of an Elgin neighborhood association that has been pushing the city to more aggressively battle residential overcrowding.

Murphy and members of her community group have walked their neighborhood, clipboards in hand, counting parked cars in front of homes and tallying the number of mailboxes outside homes to document the extent of overcrowding. But even as she does this, Murphy said she cannot help but admire the sense of community that allows two or three families or close friends to share a home.

That in itself, having close families, is a really good trait, Murphy said. We need more of that in America, she said. But how do you support that without infringing on your neighbors by having cars lining the street or maybe by making noise late at night?

Elgin officials are contemplating new ways to crack down on the continuing problem with crowded homes. Among their ideas is a proposal to limit the number of cars that can be parked on the street overnight in the city and requiring inspections whenever homes are sold or rented to new tenants. But few people are optimistic that the city will be able to come up with a plan that will meet the needs of the growing Latino population, while satisfying the complaints of its white residents.

We all want the same thing, Murphy said. Everybody wants safe, affordable housing. But there is always a fundamental tension when you have people who are working for low wages.

Post/Kaiser/Harvard Poll

Latinos in America: Perception vs. Reality

Q: What proportion of Latinos in the United States live in poverty?
Most/half: 50%
Some/very few: 42%
Don’t know: 8%
Latino poverty rate: 26%
Q: Do you think the average Latino in the United States is better off, worse off, or just about as well off as the average non-Latino white person in terms of jobs?
Better: 13%
As well off: 37%
Worse: 43%
Don’t know: 7%
Percent of men in lower-skilled jobs, 1996
Latino: 73%
White: 49%
Q: Please give me your best guess—what percentage of the U.S. population is . . .
White: 56%
Black: 30%
Latino: 24%
White: 72%
Black: 12%
Latino: 11%
Q: In the last 10 years, do you think most of the Latinos who emigrated to the United States were legal or illegal immigrants?
Illegal: 57%
Legal: 32%
Don’t know: 11%
Percent of latinos who came to the United States illegally since 1992: 25%

NOTE: This poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University is based on telephone interviews with 1,016 randomly selected adults nationwide conducted Aug. 20-25, 1999. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa.