Skip to main content

Behind the Scenes of East Chicago’s Housing Crisis

How one city’s lead crisis has left more than 1,100 people looking for new homes.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
A toy police truck lays in the grass outside of a house at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

A toy police truck lays in the grass outside of a house at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

The sun is shining through Nayesa Walker’s front door as four men in bright orange reflector vests exit her apartment. She has just returned from a long weekend at a nearby hotel, during which time the men used hand-held vacuums to scrub clean her two-story apartment. Though the hotel getaway was, in a sense, a respite from the increasingly anxious chatter of her neighbors,it wasn’t a vacation; the whole time, Walker could only worry about whether the men with orange vests — officials from the Environmental Protection Agency — had found any traces of lead or arsenic in her home.

For the last five years, Walker has been renting this apartment in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago — the Indiana city of 30,000 mostly black and Latino residents that lies 20 miles southeast of Chicago. She had no idea the extent of the dangerous heavy metals lurking in the dirt in her yard and nearby parks, maybe even collecting in her rug. She knew her home was built in an industrial area, but that’s East Chicago. People here like to say it’s the most industrial city in the country. The median household income is roughly $27,000 per year, according to the United States Census.

Calumet’s problems only became clear in the end of July, when Mayor Anthony Copeland promptly announced that the complex’s 1,100 residents — 670 of them children — would have to leave. The housing authority would be offering housing vouchers, the mayor said, which would be good until November, leaving Walker and her neighbors with just three months to uproot their lives. Their homes, Copeland said solemnly, would be demolished shortly thereafter.

“They are paying to be poisoned.”

Two months prior to Copeland’s announcement, the EPA had released data on soil samples that found staggering high lead levels in some places — many times above the level of 400 parts per million that can trigger a clean-up. The housing complex is located on land near the former location of the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, a 79-acre site that for nearly 80 years was home to a lead and copper smelter.

In the 1990s, many of the industrial buildings were demolished. It was designated as a Superfund site in 2009. In 2012, the EPA formed a plan to remove the contaminated soil without moving residents out of their homes. In May the EPA tests came out, and the mayor visited Calumet and asked Walker and the 1,100 other residents to have their children tested again. A few months later, Copeland announced the closure. A blood test found that Walker’sthree-year-old daughter has high levels of lead in her body. The public housing complex is in one area of the Superfund site, which also includes two other neighborhoods, places with mostly private residences.

Now, the family’s life sits stuffed snugly into a row of boxes that line the walls of the living room and fill the laundry room—a football and plastic cars poke out of one box, a jacket hangs from another. Though housing has been tough to find, Walker wants to be ready to leave at once, mostly because she fears for the health of her children. (Her two small boys so far have tested negative). “Once I find a place, I want to be ready to go,” she says.

Lead exposure in children at even low levels affects the central nervous system. Lead exposure can disrupt brain development and cause shortened attention spans and other behavioral problems. Children who suffer exposure are more likely to have hypertension, impaired kidneys, and poor academic abilities and decision making skills. Researchers are beginning to explore links between lead exposure and “risky behavior,” including criminal activity, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted infections.

In August, shortly after Copeland made the announcement, the East Chicago Housing Authority issued residents 90-day housing vouchers — effective until November 1st, according to a relocation timeline — to cover people’s rent in new homes, based on their family’s need. The Department of Housing and Urban Development delivered $1.9 million to help pay for new rentals, and, a month later, the agency sent another million dollars to help pay for incidentals, according to city officials. The state of Indiana has also provided $100,000 to help residents with moving costs.

But with only a month left on the vouchers, residents say this isn’t enough money to cover deposits and other expenses. The process is complicated, and the cash has not been available when it’s needed to pay for background checks and other fees. Meanwhile, residents of the Calumet complex are still required to pay for their current homes. As one local activist puts it: “They are paying to be poisoned.”

During her hotel stay, Walker visited two homes for rent. Neither one suited her. The landlord of the first home said her children would not be able to play in the yard. In the other, one of bedrooms was too small to fit even a twin bed. She also found a dead roach in a kitchen cabinet.

“It’s hard looking for places especially when you just have to up and leave,” Walker says. Since the announcement, residents have wondered why state and federal officials did not notify them about the toxic soil sooner. They compare it to Flint, Michigan, a storyline that’s made national headlines. Now they are confused about the process by which they are expected to find and pay for their new homes.

Lawyers representing residents have since filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging discrimination on the part of the local housing authority and requesting further assistance with the relocation. The complaint argues that for decades the local housing authority operated the facility knowing that residents were being subjected to heavy metal poisoning, and the “haphazard” relocation plan limits people’s ability to find “affordable, safe and adequate housing.”

Indiana Governor Mike Pence has asked HUD for a detailed plan to relocate the Calumet residents. In the meantime, Walker is ready to go, her boxes are all packed. Were it not for the danger posed to her kids, she would like to stay. “This is really making people mad,” she says. “It’s a whole big mess.”


On August 3rd, East Chicago city officials held a meeting at a local community center on Gladiola Avenue to update residents on the relocation effort. Residents filed into a basketball court, filling the room standing and sitting underneath a basketball hoop.

Speaking loudly into a microphone, Tia Cauley, the executive director of the East Chicago Housing Authority, offered the Calumet residents yet another complicating announcement: If they couldn’t find housing with the vouchers, they could be moved into the Harborside Apartments, a public-housing complex across town in the North Harbor neighborhood — an area that has longstanding conflict with residents of the Calumet neighborhood.

“The whole room erupted,” says Akeeshea Daniels, a 13-year resident of Calumet. “I have teenage boys. Even though they are not gang affiliated or anything, they are from Calumet. I could never move them to the Harbor.” In the 1990s, the two neighborhoods were home to violent conflicts between rival gangs, which residents say peaked years ago. Still, tension between the neighborhoods is high and there are infrequent shootings, according to residents.

Nayesa Walker must leave her home in Calumet because of lead contamination in the area. “I want to move to a safe environment for my kids,” she says.

Nayesa Walker must leave her home in Calumet because of lead contamination in the area. “I want to move to a safe environment for my kids,” she says.

Flash forward to the end of September. Daniels is sitting in a car, watching EPA agents load vehicles with vacuums from Walker’s house (the two are neighbors). Other friends and neighbors are gathered in a bustling parking lot in the shape of a horseshoe.

Though she’s been on the hunt for a new home for months, Daniels, too, has been unable to find anything. “The problem that I run into is that these realtors are asking for money to start looking.” She’s supposed to pay for background checks for each member of the household. “I quit,” she says. “What is the use of me looking for places when I know that I cannot afford these places?”

As Daniels and I chat, Jalisa Wash, with a baby bump visible through her colorful dress, steps out of a nearby truck. Despite being concerned about the health of her son and baby-to-be, she doesn’t want to move. She has been looking for new houses, but she says many landlords are not accepting her voucher, or they tell her that she’s put on a waiting list. “They are trying to move everyone out at the same time,” Wash says. “I don’t want to relocate.”

And even if she did, it’s not as if the local and federal housing authority is providing people enough money to pay for new housing, or enough support to find a home, argues Kate Walz, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. East Chicago doesn’t have the available homes for all of the displaced families — Calumethas nearly 350 units. The Shriver Center has thus taken to representing Calumet residents who are soon to be displaced. It’s “chaos,” Walz says.

It’s not as if they’re necessarily bound to East Chicago; residents can move anywhere in the country through a process called porting. The voucher issued by the local housing authority is used to pay for housing elsewhere, like nearby Gary, Indiana, Chicago, or even Mississippi. “The problem is the housing authorities have to communicate and cooperate, the rent has to be adjusted,” Walz says — which isn’t happening.

“You cannot just snatch it away and expect people not to care. We care about this one area.”

According to City Attorney Carla Morgan, of the 316 families who received vouchers, only a handful have actually moved. Eight families are living elsewhere in East Chicago; one family left for Gary. Meanwhile, 211 families have put in requests to move outside of the city. At least one organization has lobbied HUD to extend the vouchers several months, but that’s pending. For now, Morgan says that a “limited number” of month extensions can be granted. If people still have not found housing, they’ll be moved to Harborside.

Morgan says once the city received soil tests that showed toxic levels of lead from the EPA in May, it’s been scrambling to ensure the safety of the residents of Calumet. She says the city is trying to respond quickly to a crisis, and that moving residents out of a dangerous situation as fast as possible is the absolute priority.

“Is it the most orderly process? No,” she admits. “We are trying to do this as fast as we can. When you are responding to a crisis, do you have the luxury to act in an orderly fashion? No. We are doing the best that we can.”

Many landlords request a security deposit and rent upfront, but residents can only offer a sort of IOU from the housing authority, which can take several months to process according to residents who say that landlords won’t accept them. Morgan, on the other hand, says the money is available but residents must use the voucher system. The housing authority has counselors available to help with the process, she says.


In the best circumstances, a city like East Chicago will relocate residents into neighborhoods with better schools, more jobs, and other opportunities. Cities like Baltimore and Chicago have used relocation as a policy tool to integrate neighborhoods. But it isn’t a fast process: Residents usually meet with relocation counselors — advocates that help families find homes and navigate bureaucracy — one-on-one many times over the course of an entire year, much longer than the 90-day window that has been suggested by East Chicago authorities.

Christine Klepper runs the non-profit Housing Choice Partners, working with local housing authorities in several states to facilitate the relocation of residents. Her organization was initially approached by the East Chicago Housing Authority to help Calumet residents execute their vouchers, but Klepper declined, as she did not think that there was a “realistic timeframe” in place for the residents’ relocation. “It is hard to find voucher units under the best of circumstances,” she says.

She doesn’t think it is likely that all of the Calumet residents will be able to find homes in these types of neighborhoods. “I know we won’t be able to find enough units,” but she says that’s what the housing authority has to try to do.

“It is a tough situation because a lot of the families are anxious to move,” Klepper says. “But we want them to make good decisions and get their kids into places where they would have good medical care if necessary, good remediation educational services if necessary.”

A sign outside of a home requests that residents not play in the dirt at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

A sign outside of a home requests that residents not play in the dirt at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

Klepper doesn’t know of a precedent for this type of relocation, calling the circumstances “pretty unique.” She did help residents in Rockford, Illinois, with relocation after a public-housing complex had been demolished. In that case residents were already living in new housing and were not under the same pressure to search for a new home.

Andrew Greenlee, a housing policy professor at the University of Illinois–Urbana/Champaign, says residents are experiencing firsthand the limited capacity of the housing authority. Even under normal conditions “they are just strapped,” he explains, “for money and resources to do the best that they can do. This being a stress test, you see where the deficits are.”

It comes down to capacity, which Greenlee says the East Chicago Housing Authority — and housing authorities, in general — doesn’t have. Government officials should be considering how to deal with the acute needs of residents, access to transportation, safety, and — in this case — ongoing care for people who have been exposed to toxic metals. The really difficult thing is the “time crunch.” Residents aren’t able to leverage this move to “get the best outcomes possible,” he says.

Relocation counselors are working out of the local community center to help residents search for houses, but some residents are not finding them helpful. An outdated list of potential homes was distributed to families, which included apartments in the Superfund site and contact information for landlords that are no longer renting apartments, according to Shriver attorneys.


Since May, the EPA has been spreading rubber mulch around the neighborhood and local parks, covering bare dirt. Often, children are exposed to lead from playing in the dirt and breathing dust as it’s stirred up. The EPA has also advised parents of children to keep them from playing outside, remove their shoes before entering the house, and refrain from digging or gardening.

For years, the EPA had planned on removing contaminated soil without displacing residents. The mayor’s decision to demolish the homes scratched those plans.

Back in Walker’s apartment, she’s busy inspecting the EPA’s work. In her living room above a couch, there is a small air vent, which often collects dust and dirt. “It probably needed to be changed,” she says. Inhaling lead that’s in contaminated soil is a common way for children to ingest the heavy metal. Her theory: Her kids track in dirt from outside and when the air was turned on, dirt would go flying around the apartment. She is suspicious that it might have been her home — along with the playground — that exposed her daughter to the lead.

“We get in through this door, the dust comes in,” she says. She looks outside and calls to a neighbor. She does not want to be separated from her friends. “It’s like family right here,” she says.

“You cannot just snatch it away and expect people not to care,” she says. “We care about this one area.”