Chicago’s slumlords

When the nation-wide program of building public housing projects began in the New Deal era, it was seen as a solution to the slum problem.  Crowded, unsanitary districts could be found in almost every city, from the Lower East Side in New York to the Monkey’s Nest in Youngstown, to Little Hell in Chicago and Tanyard Bottom in Atlanta.  Federally funded public housing buildings were heralded as a way to wipe out the slums and give the poor decent living conditions.

Tanyard Bottom/Techwood Flats, Atlanta, 1920. Techwood Homes opened here in 1936

The construction of the projects purged the cities not just of the ghastly slums but also their unwanted inhabitants.  As MIT’s Lawrence J. Vale documents in his latest book, the new public housing units were seldom intended for most of those who had formerly lived in the slums.  Their construction entailed “purging the poorest” and finding those who were “deserving” of the new homes.   As policies changed over time to give access to the lowest-income applicants, the projects turned from a desirable low-cost housing option for the upwardly mobile to a last resort for those who hit socioeconomic rock bottom.

Eventually, as cities decayed from years of population and job decline, the rarefied high-rise projects turned into vertical slums.  Housing Authorities across the country failed in the upkeep of buildings and, as I’ve described before, by the 1990s public housing hit the end of the line on the court of public opinion.

Pruitt-Igoe Homes in St. Louis (USGS photo)

Chicago lead the way in massive demolitions of high-rise public housing buildings and dispersing their tenants to low-rise projects, privately owned and operated mixed-income developments, and to neighborhoods where they could rent apartments with the help of a Housing Choice Voucher (this is where the larges proportion of former project inhabitants went).  The Plan for Transformation, which was launched in 2000, augured a new era for the deregulated Chicago Housing Authority.

HCVs (formerly called Section 8) are federal subsidies paid out to individual landlords for housing a qualifying low-income tenant.  The voucher covers a certain percentage of the rent, and the tenant makes up the rest, up to 30 percent of his/her income.  If the price of the rent is still not fully met, the CHA contributes the remainder. The voucher program is now the predominant way that Chicago deals with low-income housing.  As of 2013, there are 38,585 participating households.

The Chicago Housing Authority is gradually relieving itself of the mammoth task of being a landlord.  It has yet to complete the Plan for Transformation project of constructing or refurbishing 25,000 public housing units, which was supposed to be done in 2010.  As of today, they are still over 7,000 units short of the goal.

Demolition of Cabrini Green in Chicago, 2006 (Apartment Therapy)

More and more traditional public housing units are being taken “offline” while the management and operations of homes in the private market are left to individual and corporate landlords. As a series of investigations by the Chicago Reporter revealed this year,  instead of managing slums of its own the CHA has now transitioned to paying a multitude of landlords to do so.  The results have been grim.

According to the Reporter, “six out of every 10 buildings inspected by the CHA in 2012 failed inspections at least 50 percent of the time.”  The proportion of such failing buildings has doubled since 2006, meanwhile the landlords have collected over $2 billion of taxpayer money since then.  Another Reader report describes the deteriorating conditions: rats, caved-in ceilings, leaking roofs, mold.  Additionally, landlords can take HCV tenants and collect subsidies even if their properties have gone into foreclosure.

Moving away from these slums is not always easy for low-income tenants, the Reporter investigations showed. Most need their security deposits back from the landlords to put down on a new place.  According to the CHA rules, when their unit fails an inspection and they are cleared to move, they only have 90 days to find a new place and keep their voucher.  It’s not unusual for landlords to delay returning security deposits or to not do it at all. For many, moving also entails the huge task of finding a new neighborhood that’s safe.

When the CHA decides to withhold the federal  subsidies to force a landlord to make repairs, the tenants are often the ones who bare the consequences. Some landlords choose to evict tenants who no longer come with steady subsidy payments.  Repeat violations are not punished by the CHA, so sometimes small repairs are made to pass the inspection and then it’s back to business as usual.  The CHA gives landlords one month’s notice before an inspection.

The CHA calls it’s latest Plan for Transformation phase “Plan Forward.” But can a new name change old ways?

Meanwhile, if tenants want to hold landlords legally accountable, they’re on their own.  While the CHA has grown its legal team for handling tenant screening and voucher termination, there is no flock of lawyers watching for landlord malfeasance.  There is an initial screening of those landlords who want to start receiving HCVs, but no serious oversight beyond that.

The CHA’s new CEO, Michael R. Merchant, is the former head of Chicago’s Department of Buildings and should be aware of the slumlords preying on low-income tenants and taxpayer money.  According to the Reporter, properties that pass CHA inspections are sometimes failed by the Department of Buildings for code violations.  The latter agency’s standards for what is considered a safe and habitable property are far more stringent, and their inspectors show up without warning.

Though the high-rise slums are gone, poor management isn’t, and though the CHA no longer takes direct responsibility over the stewardship of its tenants’ accommodations, it could get serious about cracking down on landlords.  The Plan for Transformation has been trumpeted as a success by Chicago’s politicians and the new inhabitants of the “cleaned up” neighborhoods where the high rises once stood. As the poor, predominately African-American project population has been pushed off of top-dollar downtown land, and the Chicago skyline has been cleared of ghastly towers, it’s easy to think the slum problem has been resolved.  But on the city’s South and West sides the have-nots are struggling to find decent housing while the slumlords collect government handouts.

1940s US Housing Authority poster (National Archives and Records Administration)

1940s US Housing Authority poster (National Archives and Records Administration)

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