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Former Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents from the Dearborn, Ickes, and Wentworth Gardens Homes, along with community organizers, protested outside 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell’s office on August 6 because the City of Chicago has transferred public CHA land to commercial interests.
Protesters called for aldermen and the CHA to place a moratorium on all land swaps and sales of public housing land and to create a plan for replacement housing. Promises of replacement housing since the CHA demolished highrise developments between 1996 and 2010 mostly have gone unrealized, protesters said.
Instead, the CHA has made deals with private developers to provide land that used to hold public housing for a grocery store and athletic facilities.
According to Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a protest organizer, “There is a crisis of affordable housing in Chicago…During the last four years of the [Richard M.] Daley Administration, the CHA averaged a little more than 840 units of housing built annually.
In Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first year of office, that number dropped to nearly half of the previous year, where 424 units of housing were built. The following year, that number dropped significantly to 112. Subsequently, that number further fell to 88 and then 40 in 2014.”
While the number of replacement units being built plummeted, the CHA began to amass what amounted to more than $440 million in reserves. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago non-profit that works for social and economic justice, reported that, in recent years, CHA has built up large cash reserves primarily by holding onto millions in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.
Each year between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer housing vouchers than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded, according to the center’s analysis, which also noted the CHA has saved an average of $90 million annually between 2004 and 2012 by withholding vouchers.
Meanwhile, some 33,000 families were waiting for CHA voucher assistance as of September of 2013, according to the think tank’s report.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro in July voiced concern at a news conference over the $440 million surplus but said Mayor Rahm Emanuel assured him the City has a plan to build more housing.
Wendy Parks, a CHA spokeswoman, said the organization plans to spend more on housing. She stated CHA would invest $240 million to build affordable housing this year compared to $135 million in 2014.
Parks added the CHA would spend down more of its reserves, which she said were down from $440 million to $221 million at the beginning of the year.
Residents just want what they were promised, Wilson said. “They were promised that they would be able to move back into an area that in some cases several generations of their families lived. We feel that housing should be developed before land is sold to commercial interests,” Wilson said.
In a statement, the protesters noted that “in the past 15 years, CHA has lost touch with many residents that have the right to return. CHA has sold and swapped public housing land for purposes other than housing, without a public plan for where and when the units promised to be rebuilt will return.”
The statement also said the CHA promised to replace highrises with “vibrant communities” in “ten years. It has been 15 years, and the people are still waiting for the right to return.”
“We’re in the 15th year of the [CHA] ‘Plan for Transformation,’ and there’s still no housing here and they’re giving land away for an athletic field for Jones College Prep,” said Wilson. “The students need an athletic field, but what about the housing?”
‘Keeping the Promise’
The protest came little more than a week after a news conference held July 29 at City Hall by 16 aldermen and the Chicago Housing Initiative, an organization that works to increase subsidized housing, to re-introduce the Keeping the Promise Ordinance.
Currently supported by 23 aldermen, the ordinance would provide 12,000 additional families with access to affordable housing without putting a drain on the city’s budget by strengthening City Council oversight of the CHA to ensure accountability concerning use of CHA’s stockpiled funds and any new revenues.
Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward), the ordinance’s lead sponsor, said, “We have a clear and pressing justice question in front of us about whether we will choose to make our City work for those who are less fortunate or whether we will continue to neglect them even when resources abound to help.”
Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward), another sponsor, said displaced public housing “people have literally been living in limbo for almost 20 years. It’s time to give people the opportunity to come back home.”
When lawmakers first introduced the ordinance last November, the CHA opened its waiting list for public housing for 21 days for the first time since 2010. In that period, 282,000 families applied for public housing.
Alderman Patricia Dowell did not respond to requests for comment. For more about the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, located at 710 E. 47th St., call (773) 231-3282 or log on to www.lbhopecenter.com
For more about the CHA voucher waiting list, log on to http://www.thecha.org/residents/update-waitlist-information/.
For the Chicago Housing Initiative, call (773) 787-6875 or log on to www.chicagohousinginitiative.org.