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Rahm Emanuel’s Next Scandal? Chicago’s Public Housing

As the mayor reels from the Laquan McDonald controversy, he must deal with a housing authority with heavy pockets and empty promises.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Laura Donaldson rides a courtesy bus to her church each Sunday for weekly services. When it pulls onto the Dan Ryan Expressway, she sees the swelling encampments under the on-ramp, where some of the more than 125,000 Chicagoans who are currently homeless seek shelter under the concrete overpass. Mattresses, shopping carts, and furniture grow in number each week. Donaldson knows about housing insecurity: she is living in a shelter herself.

Donaldson has a disability, uses a wheelchair and is living on limited income. “You have to decide between living day-to-day and rent,” she told me. Finding an accessible home that she can afford is a challenge, and the struggle is compounded by landlords who turn her away because she is in a wheelchair. “When you look for housing you face discrimination because you’re a person with a disability,” Donaldson said, exasperated.

The Chicago Housing Authority, charged with managing more than 21,000 of units of public housing, could provide Donaldson with a place to live that is both safe and affordable, a place where her daughter could have her own room and where the facilities would be wheelchair-accessible. Public housing in Chicago suffers from stereotypes born of high-profile 90s-era social ills in projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor homes, and many Chicagoans would rather turn their gaze away from the institution and those who rely on it. They shouldn’t. As the city looks elsewhere, the Chicago Housing Authority has been quietly and steadily perpetrating some of the most disturbing institutional mismanagement in a city where jaw-dropping corruption is a spectator sport.

In 2000, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a proposal for Chicago to take part in the national Moving to Work Demonstration Project, leaving the city largely exempt from federal oversight in how it operates the CHA—and newly endowed with $1.5 billion dollars in federal funding. The money was to be used over the course of a decade to rehabilitate or replace 25,000 units of public housing. The mayor at the time, Richard M. Daley, touted the so-called Plan for Transformation as a pathway to more than just better housing. “We’re not just building homes,” he said in 2006, as the Plan was underway. “We’re building lives and building communities. And I’d describe it as we’re rebuilding souls.”

Decaying basketball hoops stand outside the last Cabrini-Green Homes building to be occupied. The infamously violent housing complex was demolished in the spring of 2011.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Today, five years after the Plan was supposed to be completed, few low-income Chicagoans would say that salvation has been achieved. While over 18,000 units were demolished within the first decade of the plan, the pace to rebuild or renovate has been slow—and particularly slow since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Between 2007 and 2010, the CHA rebuilt between 700 and 900 units each year. In 2011, that number plummeted by about half, to 424. The following year, only 112 units were built. Only 49 new units were constructed last year. In a report submitted to HUD this August, the CHA promised that in the coming year it would “continue to make progress toward the 25,000 unit goal of the original Plan. CHA plans to deliver an additional 1,040 in FY2015, for an overall total of 23,141 housing units or 93% of the overall unit delivery goal.” In some cases, land set aside for public housing has instead been allocated to private developers; this summer, residents protested as construction workers broke ground for a Mariano’s grocery store on the land where the Ida B. Wells Homes once stood.  

But the problem is not just that over a billion dollars later, public housing residents are still waiting for new homes that were promised 15 years ago. The CHA is also allowing units that become vacant through attrition or eviction to remain vacant, collecting federal dollars for the units without actually placing new residents to live there. J.L. Gross, a veteran with a disability who has lived in Lathrop Homes on the North Side of the city for 26 years, has seen this strategy in his own community. “As recently as a week ago, two people were evicted from Lathrop,” he said. “They [lived in] habitable apartments. They are now boarded up… It’s a comedy of errors.” Such boarded-up units are categorized by the CHA as being “offline,” or unavailable to rent for a variety of reasons such as “maintenance” or “pending redevelopment.” As of this summer, about 16% of CHA units—a total of almost 3,500 units—were uninhabited.

Gross believes that the decision to leave them empty is a strategic step to facilitate the eventual eradication of public housing. “Out of 925 apartments, you only have 128 units that are being used, and that was either through attrition or forced eviction,” he said. “But now that the numbers are so low and CHA is not filling those vacant apartments, you have a reason to close down Lathrop.” He compares this pattern with the process of public school closure in Chicago, where schools were shut down for being underutilized. “It’s the same thing. Public schools and public housing… I’m fighting for Lathrop. It’s my community and that means more to me than anything.”

While Gross watches his neighbors’ apartments get boarded up, other Chicagoans like Donaldson are waiting for CHA to grant them a place to live. Despite the many empty units, the CHA currently maintains a disheartening queue of would-be residents. Last year 280,000 people—about half of the city’s low-income population—registered for the lottery that is a required precursor to even securing a spot on the waitlist. The registration process was only open for a four-week period, and does not ensure a spot in the CHA. In fact, it does not even ensure a spot on the waitlist; only 30,000 applicants made it onto the list for family public housing, and 50,000 made it onto the list for affordable housing vouchers.

Those who do make it onto the waitlist face a purgatory that borders on the absurd. Laura Donaldson has been waiting for a CHA unit since 1995—a situation that is not uncommon for people with disabilities, according to Brock Grosso of disability advocacy non-profit Access Living. “For people with disabilities, all this ‘affordable’ stuff [in the private housing market] is not actually affordable” because they are living on a fixed income, Grosso explains. And public housing has stricter standards of accessibility than private housing, making it all the more important for people with disabilities. Currently, 41% of CHA households include a person with a disability.

Joyce Bell, a grandmother of three, has also struggled with the waitlist. “There isn’t a true process. You never know when the waitlist is open, for how long the waitlist is going to be open, or for what area. ... They operate at a level that just ensures that so many people are gonna be homeless,” she says, frustrated. Bell is currently living with relatives and trying to maintain a stable environment for her three young grandchildren. Several years ago, Bell managed to secure a spot on the waitlist. When she had to pack up and move from one temporary living situation to another, she called the CHA to check on her waitlist status.  “During that time, CHA said they sent a letter. When I went back to check in my status, they said I was no longer on the list... because they mailed information to me. I said ‘but I’m homeless.’ Now I’m starting over again, and I can just keep calling and see if I can find out any information.... And the problem is that you don’t know when it’s opening, or if it’s going to open, or how to get access.” As for when the registration lottery will open again, that much is unclear. As of this writing, the waitlist website reads, “The Chicago Housing Authority’s 2014 Waitlist Lottery Registration is now closed. CHA anticipates that the lotteries for all three programs will be held in early 2015.” The website also provides some other discouraging, somewhat Kafkaesque FAQs.

My name was placed on a waitlist. What is the next step? How soon can I move into my apartment?

Once your name reaches the top of the waitlist, you will be contacted for screening. The wait time for screening is one to five years. If you fail screening or do not respond to outreach for screening, your name will be removed from the waitlist (all programs).

Can you tell me what number I am on the waiting list?

No, CHA does not provide waitlist placement numbers.

The CHA has failed to replace the thousands of units it tore down, despite massive public expense, in a plan that was supposed to be completed five years ago. However, the problem is not only that the agency is maintaining thousands of vacant units while low-income Chicagoans are left to languish for years on a waitlist where they do not even know where they stand or how long they will be waiting. Amidst all that, the CHA itself has become very, very wealthy. In July, HUD Secretary Julian Castro visited Chicago and expressed “continuing concern” over the agency’s $430 million dollar surplus—money that should be reinvested in making more units available. Last month, a budget review by the independent Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found that CHA has built a stockpile of reserve money “by not spending federal revenue received primarily for its housing voucher programs.”

Rather than using this surplus to renovate or construct homes for people like Bell or Donaldson, the CHA has paid off long-term bond debt early, and made payments into its internal pension system that exceeded its required contribution. In 2011, the agency was required to contribute $3.91 million into its employee pension fund; instead, $26.71 million was earmarked for pensions. By way of comparison, the Chicago Public Schools currently face a deficit of over a $1 billion, and the district has asked the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund to wait until 2017 to receive a payment. The city of Chicago faces a $426 million deficit next year, not including over $300 million owed to police and firefighters’ pension funds. In other words, at a time when the city’s public finances are in crisis and its public employees are losing pension money, the CHA has miraculously managed to pay off its debts, secure its pensions, and maintain a surplus.

Suspected corruption in Chicago government is now receiving renewed attention, thanks to the court-ordered release of a year-old dashcam video showing Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. The controversy over what some are calling a cover-up has drawn national scrutiny upon Mayor Emanuel and Garry McCarthy, the since-fired police superintendent he had appointed. For months, Emanuel was aware of the teen’s violent death, but fought to keep the video from being released—because, as one Chicago Tribune writer argued recently, he faced a difficult re-election last fall. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the head of the Chicago Public Schools, was indicted in October for fraud after it was discovered that she was trading no-bid district contracts for $2.3 million in bribes. Chicago doesn’t elect its superintendents; Byrd-Bennett had been appointed by Emanuel, who has denied any responsibility for her conduct. As critics question Emanuel’s appointed leadership in policing and in education, public housing should not escape notice—he also has the power to unilaterally appoint the head of the CHA.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel fired police superintendent Gerry McCarthy (right) earlier this week.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The current acting CEO, Eugene Jones, previously headed public housing in Toronto. He resigned “by mutual agreement” last year after an independent ombudsman called Jones’s tenure an “abject failure of leadership,” where his executive assistant earned over $100,000 and $1.6 million dollars were spent in severance pay over the course of a year. In July, Emanuel appointed former utility lobbyist John T. Hooker as chairman of the CHA’s board. In 1999, Hooker issued an apology after accepting $21,000 in college tuition waivers for his children from the legislators he was being paid to lobby. Even in a city whose outgoing Inspector General called it the “wild west of ethics,” where a mayor-appointed public schools chief is facing prison time for fraud, it is startling that the same mayor has appointed a CEO and a board chair with checkered histories to lead the CHA.

Last year, a community coalition backed by fifteen aldermen introduced a “Keeping the Promise Ordinance” that would require the CHA to face scrutiny and oversight from the city council. If the ordinance is passed, the CHA will have to account for how it will replace demolished housing, and distribute the thousands of federally funded vouchers is it currently withholding from residents. Alderman Joe Moreno, who is sponsoring the bill, says it’s “obvious” why residents are fed up with the CHA. “We’ve had so many years of mismanagement and so much turnover,” he says. “We need to have oversight on how they’re spending the money, and if they’re spending the money that they have on affordable public housing units as they’re required to do. They’re so far behind [on renovation and construction]. Thousands of people waiting for housing…. I’m very concerned. That’s why we need the transparent quarterly reporting.”

“It’s really a tale of two cities,” says Gross. “Public housing has been stereotyped as a gang infested entity, as people who are not willing to work, to pull their own weight. It’s a broad-brushes stereotype of what public housing is about. ... I consider myself blessed and lucky. I’m humbled to be where I’m at. I’m truly thankful. ...Every day I wake up, I’m a blessed individual. I want people to see my community as a good community.”

For now, City Hall is sending the message that it does not see Lathrop Homes as a good community, or a blessed one. It may be that the Emanuel administration does not see barely inhabited Lathrop Homes as a community worth protecting at all. It’s now December, and the Chicagoans who could fill its apartments are being quite literally left out in the cold.