Living as the only Section 8 resident in a wealthy suburb

Mary Schmich tells the story of Winnetka’s sole Section 8 resident:

In a Chicago suburb where million-dollar homes are common and the median household income exceeds $200,000, Miranda held a rare distinction for a while: He was the only person in town with a Section 8 housing choice voucher.

With his large belly and his mustache, his T-shirt and his jeans, he was a notable presence in the village. He liked to be out and about — staying inside depressed him — and his subsidized one-bedroom apartment on Elm Street put him in the heart of Winnetka’s action, meaning close to the Metra station, a bookstore, a Peet’s, a Starbucks, restaurants and boutiques, most of which he couldn’t afford.

He was often spotted with a big coffee cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other, maybe sitting on a park bench. He liked going to the library and, in the summer, relaxing by the lake…

Having a stable home of his own in a tranquil place offered him some peace that life otherwise denied him.

As much as residential segregation by race and ethnicity is present in the suburbs, this highlights another aspect: segregation by social class. According to the Census, Winnetka has over 12,000 residents, is very white – 94.8%, and also very wealthy – a median household income of over $207,000 and a median value of owner-occupied housing units of $941,800. How much affordable housing is available in places like Winnetka? Previous efforts to introduce the idea have met resistance. Does having any Section 8 residents threaten property values or the community’s image? Suburban residents don’t have to actively oppose such plans to provide space for poorer residents; their zoning and comprehensive plans can make their thoughts pretty clear. Would their opinions change if they met a person like Thomas Miranda? Maybe, but no matter how much they might like him as an individual, too many such residents of a certain status would not be good.

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