Slumlords on taxpayers’ dime

Gigantic holes in the ceiling. Mold growing on the walls. Rodents running rampant. Decaying porches.

Chicago Housing Authority residents may be moving on, but not necessarily to better pastures.

In 2009, LaWanda Dean left the Harold Ickes Homes in search of decent housing. Instead she ended up renting an apartment run by a management company with a history of poor maintenance.

Who pays? All of us.

In this issue, Angela Caputo takes an exhaustive look at the CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program. The program was expanded, under the agency’s historic Plan for Transformation, to provide low-income families with rent subsidies to help them move from crumbling public housing developments to a better life. Families like Dean’s get the chance to rent apartments in privately owned buildings, in neighborhoods with better schools, less poverty and more jobs.

However, many end up living in substandard conditions in Chicago’s most challenged communities, Caputo found.

A growing number of buildings in the program are struggling to meet the CHA’s own inspection standards. Nearly six out of every 10 buildings the CHA inspected in 2012 failed inspections at least half of the time, the analysis shows. The proportion of these chronically troubled buildings—16,759 properties in all—has nearly doubled since 2006.

Some of these properties take a hard, long slide, eventually becoming vacant, boarded up or worse. Tenant advocates say some landlords milk the system, collect lucrative rents, then walk away.

Between 2006 and 2011, those landlords collected $337 million in federal subsidies for renting apartments in buildings with chronically poor inspection records, Caputo’s analysis of CHA records shows. That’s roughly $1 of every $6 spent on the program during that period.

We—the taxpayers—are footing the bills.

More landlords are flunking inspections because new local and federal guidelines have stepped up inspection standards, CHA officials say. And 98 percent of the apartments in the program are brought into compliance within 90 days of their inspections, according to the CHA.

Alderman Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward isn’t buying it. Some of the owners and managers in the program are “slumlords,” she said. “We’re talking about human life here. And we’re talking about deplorable living conditions.”

Hairston says she routinely turns to city attorneys and Chicago Department of Buildings officials to investigate conditions that she calls “inhumane.”

Hairston’s South Side ward is home to more than 250 of the buildings the Reporter identified as chronically troubled.

Hairston is also a high-profile member of Progressive Reform Coalition. In March, nine city aldermen established the Chicago City Council caucus. Among other reforms, the caucus has pledged to promote “safe, decent, and affordable housing for all Chicagoans.”

While the council has no direct control of the CHA, aldermen can call for hearings, recommend policy changes and exert political pressure.

The coalition could demand that the CHA and Mayor Rahm Emanuel ramp up efforts to police bad landlords, advocate for these families and ensure that our dollars are not rewarding slumlords.

That would be the safe, decent and affordable thing to do.

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