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More Affordable Housing, Greater Oversight of CHA Urged

By Wendell Hutson | January 15, 2014 6:20pm
 Public housing advocates, including several aldermen, urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to better monitor the activity of the Chicago Housing Authority and its efforts to redevelop public housing.
Public Housing Outcry
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DOWNTOWN — Former public housing tenants, housing advocates and several aldermen demanded  the Chicago Housing Authority do a better job of providing affordable housing at a news conference Wednesday.

Members of the Chicago Housing Initiative urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to pay closer attention to the CHA because the group contends that public housing units are being replaced with new units many former CHA tenants cannot afford.

"Affordable housing should be for everyone," said Cheryl Johnson, a housing initiative member. "What we want from the mayor is for him to amend the city's housing plan to require one-for-one replacement for standing public housing units."

The group made the demands at City Hall, the same day the mayor laid out the city's housing plan over the next five years to the City Council.

In a statement, he said the plan would help create more affordable housing while also improving neighborhoods.

“The plan identifies issues, presents solutions and establishes priorities for the city’s housing initiatives over the next five years, including the commitment to expand affordability and reduce the burdensome cost of housing on many owners and renters,” Emanuel said. “To this end, the plan outlines city investments of more than $1.3 billion toward the construction, rehab, and preservation of more than 41,000 units of housing citywide.”

Still, some aldermen said the city and CHA needed to do more to ensure there is enough affordable housing.

"We need to provide oversight of the CHA. The next housing plan needs to include reform," said Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th), whose ward includes Englewood. "Housing is a basic fundamental need, and we must make sure it is available to those who need it the most."

Some former CHA residents complained the agency offered tenants no support.

Tanya Lee, a 43-year-old Englewood resident, who lived in the Clara's House homeless shelter in 1993 and later lived in the Ida B. Wells and Harold Ickes public housing buildings, said CHA should bring back its program to help residents buy homes.

"Back then, the CHA would help their tenants become homeowners but that program has long been wiped out," said Lee, who is also co-founder and executive director of Bridging the Gap Communal Living, a social service agency. "The Englewood home I live in today I got with help from the CHA."

CHA officials could not immediately confirm whether similar programs were still offered.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the Cabrini-Green public housing complex now under redevelopment, said that the CHA's effort to transform public housing for more than a decade has left many former CHA residents out in the cold.

"We still have people living in limbo and living in communities that do not want them there,"  Burnett said. "For a lot of people in our society, public housing is the only housing available to them. So, to have them wait this long to see if they will return home is not fair."

CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar said the agency's Plan for Transformation had been a success. The goal of providing 25,000 units by 2015 was 87 percent complete, he said.

He noted that just 7 percent of former CHA residents were still waiting to return to public housing through a so-called "Right of Return."

He also disputed the notion the agency wasn't helping residents. He said the "Moving to Work" agreement used "innovative, locally designed strategies that use federal dollars to more efficiently help residents become self-sufficient."

He said while 15 percent of work-eligible heads of household were employed at the start of the plan, 58 percent were now. And he said the annual income for them was $19,000.

"CHA families are more successful than ever before," he said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward incudes Lincoln Park, said the CHA needed to listen more to the community.

"CHA needs to do better. I find it appalling when 15 different neighborhood groups say what they want for the community and then the CHA does the opposite," Waguespack said. "The mayor needs to gain control over the CHA."

However, Aguilar said community input had always been a basis for redevelopment and that would not change.

"The Chicago Housing Authority continues to work collaboratively with the City of Chicago, elected officials, residents and community leaders to address Chicago’s critical housing needs," he said.