Aldermen demand local oversight, transparency for CHA

Julia C. Lathrop Homes

The Julia C. Lathrop Homes, located in the North Side community of Lakeview, is being transformed into a mixed-use development as part of the Plan for Transformation. Only 400 of the original 950 units will be reserved for public-housing residents. [Photo by David Wilson, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0]

Thirteen aldermen have introduced an ordinance to increase oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority as pressure mounts over continuing revelations of the agency’s hoarding of resources and failure to provide housing.

Meanwhile, evidence of the need for local oversight mounts. HUD has put a hold on the proposed swap of CHA land at the former site of the Harold Ickes Homes for an athletic field for Jones College Prep because CHA did not consult with residents on the disposition of the land.

At a news conference Wednesday, council members expressed outrage that in an era of budget constraints at every level of government, the CHA has accumulated a cash surplus of $432 million and failed to distribute tens of thousands of housing vouchers, while leaving thousands of units unleased and slowing construction of new housing to a virtual standstill.

“How dare they!” thundered Ald. Joe Moreno (1st Ward), chief sponsor of the ordinance, backed by the Chicago Housing Initiative.

“Unacceptable,” said Ald. Deb Mell (33rd).

“Unconscionable,” said Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).

CHI’s Keeping The Promise ordinance requires quarterly reports by the CHA to the City Council’s housing committee; reestablishes the one-for-one replacement requirement for demolished units that was lifted when the federal government exempted the CHA from a range of regulations 15 years ago; and requires the CHA to expand access to the housing vouchers it holds and develop a plan to increase the quality of housing for voucher holders.

The quarterly reports would address the lack of transparency increasingly evident since The Chicago Reporter in 2012 exposed CHA’s receipt of federal operating subsidies for units that had not been occupied for years. Since then, CHI has documented that the CHA has received $25 million in federal operating subsidies for unleased units — 20 percent of the agency’s housing inventory — and $40 million in federal replacement housing grants while housing construction has stalled, dropping steadily from an average of 800 units annually in the last years of the Daley administration to 40 this year.

Most recently CHI and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability revealed that the CHA held back an average of 13,500 housing vouchers each year since 2008, collecting but not spending about $100 million yearly in federal funds.

The ordinance would require CHA to step up efforts to provide housing, mandating firm plans and setting timelines when units are demolished or converted. According to CHI, CHA has demolished 18,650 units in 11 major developments, but of 5,182 promised replacement units, only 2,472 have been built.

Federal deregulation left “a vacuum of accountability,” while “tens of thousands of families have gone homeless and struggled to keep a roof over their heads,” said Rod Wilson of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville.

The bulk of the city’s affordable housing funds — an estimated $650 million over 15 years — has gone to CHA’s Plan For Transformation, which has resulted in a net loss of 14,000 units of housing, said Miguel Suarez of the Lathrop Leadership Team.

“City funding must be used to expand affordable housing opportunities, not reduce them,” he said.

Restoring the one-for-one unit replacement requirement is needed at the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, where developers currently plan to rehab 400 of 950 existing apartments, but have no plan for replacing the rest, he added.

The ordinance would also require housing replacement plans when the CHA participates in land swaps, such as the deals currently proposed at Ickes and two other South Side sites.

HUD temporarily blocked the Ickes swap after the Central Advisory Council, composed of elected representatives of CHA residents, complained that regulations requiring resident consultation weren’t followed, said CAC attorney Robert Whitfield.

According to Wilson, the documentation submitted by CHA listed a meeting where the land swap was not on the agenda and no residents were in attendance.

He said that the 2007 CHA plan proposing demolition of 1,000 units at Ickes, which HUD approved, promised that 402 replacement units would be built. In 2008 that number was reduced to 312 units; two years later it was reduced to 200, he said.

With federal deregulation, the “CHA basically has authority to do whatever it wants to do,” Wilson said. The Hope Center is advocating that the CHA abide by its initial proposal, which was “what it promised in order to get approval to tear down,” he said.

The larger issue is “the disposal of land in places where replacement housing has not been built or has been very slow being built,” Whitfield said. He said the CHA’s new draft of its annual plan proposes disposing of land at LeClaire Courts near Midway with no plan for replacement housing.

A large part of the oversight problem is that HUD “just rubber stamps everything the CHA proposes, in my opinion,” he said. He pointed to a recent HUD Inspector General report last year that found the department’s oversight of housing authorities in the Moving To Work program — of which the CHA is by far the largest — was “inadequate” because HUD had not evaluated agencies’ compliance with statutory requirements or evaluated agencies’ self-reported data, among other reasons.

“Moving To Work was supposed to give flexibility, not carte blanche,” he said.

But with growing attention on the gaps in the CHA’s performance, it looks like the agency will have to allow some sunshine on its activities. It may even have to start providing more housing.

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