Time to deal with dilapidation

It’s a new year with new resolutions. And I’ve got some for local and federal housing authorities.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should resolve to be courageous and slow the money that flows to landlords running an arsenal of dilapidated housing stock for Chicago’s low-income residents.

HUD should stop lining the pockets of irresponsible landlords and instead force those property owners to clean up their acts or sell their buildings to responsible managers who will reinvest that money to make these buildings truly habitable.

Subsidized housing under Section 8 of the federal housing act is something people rarely talk about. It’s essentially when a government subsidy is attached to a particular building, not a person. In Chicago, there are a lot of them. As of this year, there are more units available in these types of buildings than in CHA’s apartment buildings. That’s why this issue is of particular importance.

In this month’s cover investigation “Subsidized money pit,” reporter Angela Caputo sets the record straight on the deplorable conditions of some of these buildings, the millions of dollars of good money poured into bad management, the shell game some landlords are playing to divert the cash to purposes other than housing and the continued lack of oversight when buildings receive failing grades.

Caputo points to story after story of heartbreak—people maneuvering furniture to avoid getting burned on exposed pipes, buying pets to catch rodents, and going without hot water for days and weeks because their landlords won’t fund repairs or are slow in doing them.

Because of the lack of affordable housing—notwithstanding the foreclosure crisis that has suddenly created an even greater need—people are willing to put up with these hazardous conditions just to have a roof over their heads. But they shouldn’t.

I will give authorities some credit, but not much. Some landlords have been taken to housing court and slapped with fines. Others receive some terrible scores when their buildings are evaluated. But the problem is that it doesn’t take a high score to keep the subsidy. If the standard keeps dropping, most every building will pass.

Federal authorities need to raise the bar. Landlords shouldn’t profit when their properties don’t have grades high enough to pass high school.

Advocates want action, too, but they’re nervous. If the feds get too aggressive, many of the buildings could get shuttered. So advocates wrestle with the tough choice of deciding whether it’s better to deal with shoddy housing or no housing at all.

I say let the feds do their job. It’s like the book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” When the cheese is removed, the mouse has an opportunity to find new cheese. In a case like this, you remove the bad landlords, and responsible landlords will appear who prioritize people, not profit.

Quality subsidized housing is good for the community. It allows people to be less transient, which creates higher test scores among students and stabilizes neighborhoods. Stabilized communities grow, and that growth attracts commercial developments that funnel money back into the community.

Authorities and advocates shouldn’t be afraid to get rid of dead weight. Be courageous—move the cheese.

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