On the morning of Wednesday, January 15, a crowd armed with “no market rate” shirts and colorful placards gathered in front of City Council chambers to call for greater transparency and accountability at the Chicago Housing Authority.
Tenants from various CHA properties, a coalition of activists and community organizers, and 15 aldermen joined for a press conference to voice their concern over two core issues: the CHA’s failure to circulate over 13,000 Section 8 vouchers fully funded by the federal government since 2004, and the agency’s accumulation of a reserve of over $660 million in taxpayer money (which some reporters have called a slush fund) by diverting city and federally allocated funds away from various housing programs since at least 2008. This data is based on the agency’s own financial reports.
Even after purging 47,000 families from their waiting lists last fall, there are still over 40,000 families waiting for affordable housing assistance from the agency.
The issue has been made public in light of the City’s new Five-Year Housing Plan which Mayor Rahm Emanuel officially presented to the City Council today. The Plan broadly discusses strategies to encourage growth in the housing market through 2018, but makes little mention of expanding affordable housing opportunities.
Since the federal government stopped requiring that local housing authorities replace demolished public housing on a one-to-one basis in the mid-1990s, and subsequently deregulated the CHA altogether in the early 2000s, no city rules have been set in place to require that a taxpayer-funded demolition go hand-in-hand with construction of a new dwelling. The result has been a net loss of 14,389 affordable housing units for families making 0-80% of the annual median income in Chicago since 1999, according to data compiled by the Chicago Housing Initiative.
“We all know how much money has gone to the CHA from city coffers, or to developers and the CHA, over the last decade. It’s about $560 million. And how many of those dollars have they been accountable for? Very few,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “CHA has provided only half of the affordable housing that they were designated to provide.”
Waguespack’s ward includes a part of the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, one of the CHA’s oldest developments (and one of only three 100% public housing developments left in its portfolio). Located on Chicago’s affluent North Side, the Lathrop Homes have been slowly drained of residents by the CHA and now stand over 80% vacant on a beautiful stretch of riverfront property, surrounded by easily-accessible amenities and upscale condominiums.
Despite the vacancies, the CHA continues to receive full operating subsidies from the federal government for the unoccupied units. A grand redevelopment plan by a private developer partnering with the CHA is slated to begin transforming the Lathrop site into a mixed-income property as soon as this summer. Waguespack has resisted the plan and sees it as another example of the CHA failing in its most basic responsibility to low-income Chicagoans.
“We don’t need more market rate [housing] in the 32nd ward and the surrounding area, but what is the CHA doing? They’re doing the exact opposite not only of what these residents from Lathrop want, but the exact opposite of what 15 neighborhood communities in that area have asked for. That’s pretty appalling to me,” Waguespack announced to a cheering crowd.
In an interview Waguespack pointed out that “there’s a big push [in the the mayor’s Five-Year Plan] for privatization of the CHA assets, which are basically taxpayer assets. The underlying text is that the CHA wants to get out of the business of public housing and sort of hand over a lot of duties and activities to private developers, and that’s been basically the mantra of the mayor. The mayor has kind of driven this in every department, every commission in the city, every sister agency.” [For more on this issue of privatization check out a recent interview with Chicago journalist Ben Joravsky]
Among the speakers at the press conference was Cheryl Johnson, a lifelong resident of Altgeld Gardens (another of the three 100% public housing CHA properties) and Executive Director of People for Community Recovery. “Our coalition understands that even though the city contributions to the housing authority are a small portion of the overall CHA funding, these resources should have conditions on them,” Johnson said. “Far too long, the CHA has used city funding to demolish and not rebuild replacement housing. Even while thousands of Chicagoans are struggling with homelessness.”
“If the CHA just took 1/6th of the stockpile reserves and put them to use, over 11,000 homeless families could be housed, that would be a 15% drop in homelessness in the city of Chicago,” said Jimi Miller, a formerly homeless veteran who with his wife lived in separate shelters for 19 months as they waited for housing assistance in 2011.
The Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of eight organizations that focus on low-income housing issues, has been working to raise awareness in the community and among city officials about the CHA’s questionable finances for many months. Many of the aldermen were not aware of the agency’s own reports of blatant diversion of city and federal funds away from creating housing.
“I’m excited that there were 15 aldermen who came to take a stand on affordable housing and came to say the status quo is unacceptable. I think that’s a marker of significant progress,” said Leah Levinger, Executive Director of the CHI. A total of 22 aldermen have signed a proposal for amendments to the mayor’s Five-Year Plan, which include a call for one-for-one replacement of standing public housing units. These will discuss by the Housing Committee sometime in February.