Volume 53   Number 2 Spring 2020

The Community Practitioner

Edited by Olya Glantsman and Mayra Guerero, DePaul University with Tajauna Biloche, ONE Northside 

Practitioner Highlight: Camilla Cummings

Written by Camilla Cummings and Isabelle Grant, DePaul University

In this column, we are highlighting the work of Camilla Cummings, a Clinical-Community Ph.D. student at DePaul University, and the current SCRA Student Representative for 2019-2021. Camilla’s research and advocacy focuses on interventions for individuals experiencing or at-risk for homelessness and issues of housing equity. In 2018, Camilla was awarded a SCRA Practice Community Mini-Grant for her dissertation study, which is a community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) project examining the lived experiences of tenants who are displaced from Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing. This research project emerged from her organizing and advocacy work with ONE Northside, a grassroots community organizing organization based in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. ONE Northside works on organizing community members around many social issues including affordable housing with teams working on housing issues related to rent control, community-driven development (i.e., community benefits agreements), and SRO preservation. 

SRO housing units are the smallest and most basic unit of housing (i.e., 70 to 200 square feet) within housing markets and are typically the cheapest housing option close to desirable areas. SROs typically lack other barriers to housing entry, including first and last month's rent, deposits, having an income that is two- to three-times the rent, and separate utilities. As such, SROs are a crucial form of housing for the city’s most economically vulnerable tenants. Indeed, SRO tenants are more likely to be people of color and/or immigrants, older or elderly, have recently experienced homelessness, have a disability or a mental illness, and be in recovery from a substance or alcohol use disorder. The precipitous loss of SRO housing has been documented widely across North America beginning in the 1950’s and gaining acceleration after the 1970’s with Chicago losing almost 23,000 SRO units between 1973 and 1984 which totaled almost 81% of the SRO housing stock. Because SRO housing is often the most affordable and accessible form of housing, when they close, few suitable alternatives exist for low-income people. Camilla_TCP_Pic_1.JPG


As a result, tenants and advocates organized together as the Chicago for All Coalition, led by ONE Northside, to pass the 2014 SRO Preservation Ordinance. The ordinance was intended to preserve SROs by giving non-profit developers priority in purchasing SRO buildings and providing some protections for SRO tenants. Despite the promise of the ordinance, SROs are still in rapid decline as they continue to be sold to for-profit developers or are rehabilitated by their owners and “flipped” to luxury housing (i.e., condos, micro-studios, etc.). This process frequently displaces tenants from their communities and sometimes pushes them into homelessness. While more SRO buildings can be built, the most feasible option given money and time constraints, is to preserve the SRO housing that still exists. Thus, it is vital to better understand the impact of SRO closures on tenants lives and urge the city of Chicago to protect SRO housing.

To address this critical community need, Camilla’s CBPAR project aims to:  (1) collect information about how the loss of SRO housed affects displaced tenant’s lived experience; and, (2) use an intersectional framework to better understand how aspects of identity and their connection to greater systems of power, privilege, and oppression shape the experiences of tenant displacement. Camilla’s research team is comprised of five SRO tenant-researchers: Lamont Burnett, Jon Adams, Tom Gordon, and Andrew Cannella and current and former ONE Northside staff, Tajauna Biloche and Gilary Valenzuela. All team members have participated in all steps of research development and implementation (i.e., recruitment and data collection).

Camilla has also included undergraduate students from DePaul on her research team, including Isabelle Gallant, who has not only worked on this project as part of their field work course in DePaul’s undergraduate Community Psychology Concentration, but has also worked to obtain additional funding for the project. Isabelle has also assisted with capacity building at ONE Northside through their work using ArcGIS to create collaborative maps addressing core issues for internal use at ONE Northside, educating community members, and influencing policy makers.

Camilla would be unable to do this work without the support of her advisor, Dr. Molly Brown, who has obtained additional faculty funding to support this project and provided invaluable guidance and support. Molly, Isabelle, and Camilla have worked to build capacity at ONE Northside through attending community meetings and doing the non-glamorous work of community organizing (e.g., taking notes, serving food, cleanup) as well as attending meetings with important community stakeholders, canvassing, phone-banking, and attending advocacy events like press conferences and protests. Through the use of community-based methods, this project has sought to engage SRO tenants to leverage their strengths and lived experience to advocate for the needs of their community and to shed light on inequitable housing practices that diminish their well-being.