Teachers in the third-largest U.S. school district are expected to go on strike Thursday for the first time in seven years after contract negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and city officials hit a stalemate Tuesday night. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday morning that classes at Chicago public schools will be canceled in anticipation of the strike, which was made official Wednesday evening.

Along with familiar issues such as contract length, benefits and class sizes, one of the core demands of the teachers union is not explicitly about their work environment but rather community justice: access to affordable housing.

This contract negotiation marks the first time the union has expressly called on the city to address systemic housing equity (Illinois law restricts the set of issues over which teachers may legally strike). It’s part of a growing movement, spearheaded by teacher and other labor unions, focused more broadly on issues affecting their community for what’s often called “bargaining for the common good.”

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“Teachers are members of communities and increasingly struggle with their affordability; that [teacher unions] are centralizing affordability for their students shouldn’t come as any surprise,” said Karla Walter, director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress. Teachers unions in Los Angeles and Minneapolis have emphasized issues like affordable housing, restorative justice and sanctuary protections for immigrants in their contract negotiations.

Housing is especially critical in Chicago, where a mix of historic segregation and disinvestment in nonwhite communities, coupled with a growing affordable-housing crisis, has hit black residents especially hard; black residents were Chicago’s largest demographic in 2000, but the population has shrunk by nearly a quarter since then, according to census data.

“When you look at the data of what’s happening in Chicago, the city is losing people, but if you drill down into the numbers, you see that it’s really these historically disinvested neighborhoods on the south and west sides, while other parts of the city are growing,” said Geoff Smith, executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.

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Among Chicago’s black population that remains, thousands face dwindling housing options. Doug Schenkelberg, executive director for the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, notes that roughly 81 percent of the Chicago public schools’ homeless population are black students, although they constitute little more than a third of the overall student population.

According to the district’s 2018 figures, more than 16,450 of its students experience some form of homelessness — and that’s a conservative estimate, Schenkelberg said.

“We know that’s an undercut, because that’s a self-reported number,” Schenkelberg said. Chicago’s homeless youth population is more obscured because 90 percent of them are not necessarily living on the streets but are “doubled up”: sleeping in cars or on floors or relatives’ couches in what are indoor but still itinerant situations.

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Elementary special-education teacher and CTU delegate Katie Osgood is among the CPS teachers who have students leave school each day unsure of where they’ll sleep that night.

At her previous school, Osgood recalled having a 6-year-old student who was disabled and had a mother living in a shelter. The student and her siblings lived with an elderly, distant relative during the week and bounced around to different shelters with their mother on weekends.

“On Monday mornings, this little girl would be traumatized. It was understandable how her mood would shift day-to-day,” Osgood said. The instability made it hard to fit in much instruction time. “We had to find out if she had food and clean clothes. This is what our little guys deal with.”

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Schenkelberg said doubled-up situations aren’t included in the criteria for federal money to address homelessness, although the Education Department does count the doubled-up population in its student homelessness totals.

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“We include them because whether you’re on the streets or someone’s basement floor, the effects are the same,” Schenkelberg said. He noted that in addition to the trauma students experience from housing instability, a lack of a permanent home can mean itinerant students, who may not live in the same neighborhood week to week, also lack a permanent school community.

Teachers are demanding that the city commit to creating sustainable housing, housing subsidies for lower-paid school staffers such as aides, and a support system for homeless students.

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Lightfoot’s office deferred to the public school system for comment. In response, Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Emily Bolton shared an Oct. 8 statement from Lightfoot’s office, noting that despite developments in the negotiations since then, the city’s position on housing remained the same: “Affordable housing is a critical issue that affects residents across Chicago, and everyone’s voices need to be heard during this process. As such, the CTU collective bargaining agreement is not the appropriate place for the City to legislate its affordable housing policy,” the statement read in part.

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Lightfoot has accused the union of stalling on contract negotiations over the housing issue — an assertion CTU spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said is untrue.

“We presented our proposals, including on supports for homeless students and affordable housing for CPS families and workers, as a package to CPS, on January 15,” Geovanis told The Washington Post in an email. Geovanis said it was the city that volunteered to discuss housing at bargaining, but that the talk “was literally about 20 minutes in length last week.”

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“One wonders if [the city] finally invited a discussion about this set of proposals simply to be able to complain to the press that ‘housing demands’ are holding up bargaining. CPS is holding up bargaining,” Geovanis wrote.

CPS support staff have similarly set strike dates of October 17.

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In Chicago, a person would have to earn $23 an hour to afford an average two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, Schenkelberg said; Chicago teachers and other municipal employees are required to live within city limits, per employment eligibility rules. CPS teachers with 10 years of experience and an advanced degree can earn a salary of about $82,630 a year; paraprofessionals in the classroom, like teacher assistants or special ed classroom aides, earn around $34,000 annually.

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“It’s generally accepted that within the school system, it’s important to make sure kids are fed,” Schenkelberg said, citing federally funded breakfast and lunch programs. “We know whether a kid has access to healthy food impacts their educational opportunities. That’s a generally accepted principle; there’s no reason we shouldn’t be talking about housing in the same way.”

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this story.

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