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After CHA CEO Calls Transparency Ordinance 'Waste of Time,' Pols Fire Back

By Mina Bloom | September 9, 2015 6:14am | Updated on September 9, 2015 6:15am
 Crews demolish the last of the former Cabrini-Green housing project high-rises.
Crews demolish the last of the former Cabrini-Green housing project high-rises.
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NEAR NORTH SIDE — Supporters of an ordinance designed to strengthen City Council oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority are firing back after CHA's new interim leader Eugene Jones called their legislation a "waste of time." 

At a Near North Unity Program meeting last week, Jones spoke out against the "Keeping the Promise" ordinance, saying: "They want to put an ordinance on me and demand me to report to the City Council. I don't think that's right. I don't think that's fair. I just think it's a waste of time."

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who was one of 19 aldermen to sponsor the ordinance, has since fired back, saying "without oversight, there is no accountability."

 Eugene Jones at a recent Near North Unity Program meeting.
Eugene Jones at a recent Near North Unity Program meeting.
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"Calling taxpayer oversight and accountability a 'waste of time' is what got Mr. Jones into trouble at Toronto's Community Housing Authority. I hope he and the CHA reconsider their opinion on the oversight ordinance," he said in a written statement. 

Jones, who is the CHA's fifth CEO since Mayor Rahm Emanuel first took office in 2011, did not respond to messages seeking further comment. According to a Sun-Times report, Jones left Toronto after a scathing report by the ombudsman there. 

He inherited an agency in Chicago that has faced scrutiny for sitting on at least $440 million in reserves, even after pumping an extra $55 million into its pension fund and paying down debts early over the prior two years.

Under the "Keeping the Promise" ordinance, the CHA would be required to file quarterly reports detailing the utilization rate for rental housing vouchers and showing the progress on the construction of replacement public housing to the City Council's housing committee.

The CHA would also have to use 97 percent of the funding it receives toward its voucher program in order for the City Council to fund future projects. 

Another alderman who sponsored the legislation, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), believes the ordinance is a "healthy" way for both sides, including the housing activists who drafted the ordinance and CHA officials, to express how they feel about the way money is spent on public housing in the city.

While Burnett praised Jones for being "very candid and open-minded about having a dialogue," he also said Jones has to be clear about why he's against the ordinance.

"If he don't articulate why he said that, I think that's bad. I think he needs to articulate why he said that," the alderman said.

Still, Burnett said he'd rather have a CEO who "shares how [he or she] feels."

"The reason why Eugene is saying it's a waste of time is because he thinks they can talk to him and work out mostly what they want. It's going to be a challenge with the one-for-one replacement housing. That's always going to be an uphill battle. I think that's one of the sticking issues."

At its peak, the former Cabrini-Green development housed more than 15,000 people in more than 3,600 housing units. The public housing renewal project scattered the former residents around the city and state, many using a voucher program to find living quarters elsewhere.

Liz Brake, 70, who has lived in a public housing building on the Near North Side for seven years, was one of the activists who helped write the ordinance. 

Brake said she was not surprised that Jones doesn't support the ordinance, saying "almost no agency that operates with regulation wants regulation." 

But she said she was taken aback by his "harsh" delivery.

"It should not be up to him. It should be up to the aldermen to demand reporting, demand transparency and demand progress toward benchmarks that are set out in the ordinance," she said.

When asked if Jones' message will impact progress, Brake said "it hinders it if we are only counting on the cooperation of the CHA."

"If the CHA did what they promised to do, what they're charged with doing, what they get money for doing, there wouldn't be a need for an ordinance," she added.

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