Housing Advocates Pressure the CHA to “Keep Its Promise”

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Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), the chief sponsor of Keeping the Promise, urged for the Chicago Housing Authority to spend the rest of its reserve on housing vouchers at a press conference on Wednesday. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)

By Alexis Myers and Shen Wu Tan

Advocates for affordable housing recently campaigned for the passage of a housing ordinance that aims to reduce homelessness and protect the city’s remaining subsidized housing stock at a City Hall public hearing Feb. 17.

The ordinance called “Keeping the Promise” would increase the distribution of housing vouchers, increase construction of affordable housing units across all neighborhoods and improve Chicago Housing Authority transparency. It would require the CHA to utilize 97 percent of its available housing voucher funds.

According to the Chicago Housing Initiative, the CHA was sitting on a $430 million surplus and withholding public housing vouchers from circulation—with no debt, and a fully funded pension system.

The CHA reportedly leased 44,809 vouchers last year, which is 6,894 vouchers short of what federal funding issued to the CHA to distribute to those on the waiting list according to a CHA 3rd Quarter Quarterly Report.

During that time, 120,824 people remained on the waiting list, according to the report.

“I don’t know of any other public entity that we can say is cash rich today,” said Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), the chief sponsor of the ordinance. “Springfield can’t say that. City of Chicago can’t say that. Unfortunately, our public schools can’t say that, but the CHA can say that. They have the money. We need them to spend the money.”

Matthew Aguilar, the managing community director at the CHA, wrote in an email that “the CHA had a reserve fund of $154 million” by the end of 2015.

“As CEO [Eugene] Jones [Jr.] said at the hearing, we will continue to invest our resources to provide more housing options for people in neighborhoods across the city of Chicago through a strategy of building, acquiring and rehabbing housing,” Aguilar wrote. “Working with residents, community stakeholders, aldermen and housing advocates we believe that we can create new housing affordable housing opportunities across Chicago.”

Jones, the new CEO of the CHA, informed the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate at the hearing that the CHA intends to spend 90 percent of its housing voucher funds by next year. The remaining ten percent would be allocated for housing developments and resident services.

Leah Levinger, director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, has been the frontrunner of numerous protests this year to get the housing committee onboard with the ordinance she and 25 City alderman sponsor to hold the CHA accountable for its actions.

“The CHA has been underperforming on every possible performance metric and has been for the last four or five years,” Levinger said. “And that’s from a lack of oversight and lack of regulation.”

Those opposed to the ordinance said that while the ordinance has good intentions, it outlines unrealistic, micromanaging provisions.

Julie Brown, co-leader of BPI’s public housing committee, described the ordinance as “unnecessary” and an “inhibitive bureaucracy that will slow development” by restricting the flexibility of CHA funds.

A letter by Francine Washington, chairwoman of the Central Advisory Council, to the Committee on Housing and Real Estate states “an obvious problem with holding CHA accountable for shortfalls in the housing conditions of its voucher program is that CHA does not own the properties used for this program.”

“If some landlords decide not to cooperate in achieving the CHA’s goals, then the CHA will not meet its benchmarks, and public housing residents will suffer,” the letter continues.

The City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate did not vote on the housing ordinance at the hearing. A second hearing must be held for a final decision to be reached.

Discrepancies in CHA reports

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability confirmed the CHA sits on a $430 million surplus, also referred to as their working capital reserve, in a 2014 fiscal report. A 2015 annual financial report for CHA is not yet available.

The CTBA also confirmed the number of unissued vouchers after investigating claims by the Chicago Housing Initiative.

Amanda Kass, CTBA budget director and pension specialist, was one of the last pro-ordinance speakers at the 12-hour hearing. She said the CHA is issuing 6,894 less vouchers than it received federal funding for.

Eugene Jones Jr., the new CEO of the CHA, explained why he opposes the Keeping the Promise ordinance at the public hearing (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL).

“Because the CHA is in Moving to Work (MTW) it can use voucher money and spend it on other things,” Kass said. “The problem is for years the CHA wasn’t spending it on anything, which is why the reserve built up so much.”

“It’s unclear if it’s allocated to something else,” Kass said. “There’s no way to figure out what that (voucher money) is being set aside for at this moment in time.”

There’s a policy debate on housing and it comes with a lot of contention over what the best form of assistance is, Kass said. “What the CHA doesn’t make clear is how it’s making that policy decision, so how is it deciding how many vouchers not to issue?”

If the CHA were to distribute all of its vouchers it would preclude them from doing development, Kass said, like the Lathrop Homes Project, which has been stalled for over a decade.

Kass said it’s odd that the CHA doesn’t lose funding because normally if a housing authority issues substantially fewer vouchers than they’re funded to issue in one year, their funding would be cut in subsequent years. However, that doesn’t happen to the CHA because they’ve been in MTW since 2000 and have more financial flexibility.

Aguilar wrote in an email that the CHA leased 45,973 vouchers and issued a total of 7,963 vouchers as of December 31, 2015. Although requested, this information from the 4th quarter quarterly report is not yet available to the public.

“At the beginning of 2014, we were serving approximately 37,000 families and we are now serving nearly 46,000 families,” Aguilar wrote. “The CHA plans to hold steady around the 46,000 level for 2016.”

Laura Donaldson and the CHA’s wait list

Laura Donaldson, a 47-year-old mother with cerebral palsy who supports the ordinance, has been on the CHA waiting list for over 20 years. She has been living in a shelter on the South Side for over two years now. She said she feels blessed not to have to live on the street, but that it can be just as bad living in a shelter.

Every morning Donaldson wakes up at 4 a.m. to get ready before the staff “kicks her out” at 6 a.m. It is a tough, restrictive life, she said, and with a CHA housing voucher she said she could live more freely.

“I am tired. I just want my own place, so I could get a job, go to school and get the proper exercise I need for my condition and I can’t do that living in the shelter,” Donaldson said. “With the ordinance, it would be wonderful because you have a lot of people who are disabled who are actively looking for housing.”

Donaldson is among 120,823 other people on the CHA’s waiting list to receive a housing voucher—81,072 of whom are female and 301 of whom requested accessible housing.

“A waiting list should not be decades,” said Ald. James Cappleman (46th), one of the ordinance’s sponsors. He added that the CHA needs to develop a strategy to reduce the waiting time for housing vouchers.

According to a January report conducted by the Department of Family Support Services, 6,786 Chicagoans are currently homeless and 30 percent more people are unsheltered than in 2014. The report also stated the homeless population “remains overwhelmingly African American and outpaced the city in its proportion of children and veterans.”

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Reporter Ryan Connelly Holmes interviews homeless people in Uptown who have been waiting for CHA housing vouchers. (Ryan Connelly Holmes/MEDILL)

With the passage of the ordinance, Donaldson said that she hopes she can finally live in a place of her own.

“I would have more freedom in life to do the things I want to do and know I could do,” she said. “I just need someone to give me the chance to do those things.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the chairman of the City Council on Housing and Real Estate, has not indicated he will allow another hearing or vote on this ordinance.

“Ideally there would be some commitment on the part of the Administration to due process and allowing a vote to at least see if the ordinance will succeed or fail, but the chairman has total discretion,” Levinger said. “We are going to have to organize the heck out of him and his constituents to push him to allow a second hearing with a vote to occur.”

Photo at top: Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), chief sponsor of Keeping the Promise, urged for the Chicago Housing Authority to spend the rest of its reserve on housing vouchers at a news conference Feb. 17. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)