After a two-year struggle, housing activists and their City Council allies on Wednesday finally got a hearing on their plan to hold the Chicago Housing Authority’s feet to the fire to confront homelessness by spending its $430 million surplus.
But it was only a symbolic victory.
Housing Committee Chairman Ald. Joe Moore (49th) announced at the outset that it would be a “subject matter hearing only” with no vote on the so-called “Keeping the Promise” ordinance, which has support from half of the City Council.
And before a word of testimony, Moore declared his opposition to the plan to tighten the reins on a CHA that has gone through five CEOs in the past four years.
The proposal mandates “one-for-one replacement” of low-income housing units; blocks city land swaps or planned development applications involving CHA land unless the CHA produces a replacement plan; and requires the CHA to file quarterly reports on its “vacant and offline housing ward-by-ward,” complete with voucher-utilization rates and progress on building replacement public housing.
It would also make future City Council funding for CHA projects contingent on the CHA using 97 percent of the money it receives for its voucher program. The CHA hopes to reach 90 percent next year.
Moore argued that the regulations would inadvertently “intensify segregation of public housing residents in certain neighborhoods.”
“The one-for-one requirement. The ability of tenants to file lawsuits. There’s so many bureaucratic hurdles that need to be overcome. No private developer is going to be interested in participating with the CHA in doing mixed-income developments. No private developer is going to want to participate in something that burdensome,” Moore said.
CHA CEO Eugene Jones Jr. agreed that the legislative overkill would have a chilling effect on development.
“We are scrutinized by the federal government of everything that we do. Everything has to be dotted. Everything has to be crossed. We have so many different layers of the government where we have to get approval,” he said.
“Adding another layer is going to delay our actually moving forward. I don’t want the developments to stall. I want them to move forward.”
Moore has argued repeatedly that the CHA’s biggest problem has been its failure to communicate with residents.
If that’s true, the hearing Wednesday was a giant step forward.
Jones bombarded aldermen with statistics about all of the progress he has made. And he finally explained why CHA is sitting on a $430 million surplus that will be “down to zero” by 2017.
“Back in 2008 when we had that recession, CHA could not move forward because the deals weren’t there. The financial instruments weren’t there. They weren’t getting the best bang for the buck back in 2008. . . . Because of that, those reserves kept on building and building. We could not find deals. We could not push ’em through,” he said.
Over the past six months, the tide has turned. Development deals have been “jump-started” and moved out the door, Jones said.
“We put our foot down on the accelerator and we’re moving ’em quicker. . . . We’re going to move forward. We’re going to build mixed-income developments. We’re going to reduce our reserves. We’re going to . . . do great things for Chicago and not procrastinate. Not sit there and pontificate anymore,” he said.
During a news conference before the meeting, housing advocates noted that 282,000 households — one of every four in Chicago — applied for the chance to get on a waiting list eligible for a CHA lottery during a 30-day window in October 2014.
Linda Diaz was one of them. Meanwhile, she’s about to get evicted from the homeless shelter she’s been living in for the past two years because of new rules governing how long people can remain in shelters.
“I might be on the street again. I’ve been looking for housing for over two years and I’m still on many waiting lists for the CHA and other affordable buildings,” she said.
“The city needs to be responsible for the failures of the Chicago Housing Authority. The CHA has money it should be using to house me and others who are homeless.”
Jones said he has some ideas to solve the waiting list problem.
“Waiting lists are always so huge. The need is always there. We need to manage expectations. If you’re going to put your name on a waiting list, you should have five years and you should be in or out. It shouldn’t take you decades where we cannot explain why that has not moved,” Jones said.
“You have to look at how people are qualified to be on that waiting list. It should be the most needy in our communities.”
The sales pitch delivered by Jones was generally well-received.
But rookie Aldermen Ray Lopez (15th) and Millie Santiago (31st) were not appeased.
“I don’t agree with the wait-and-see attitude. As is evident by the amount of people in our gallery, plenty of people have waited, seen and are still wanting,” Lopez said.
Santiago said her Far Southeast Side constituents are “tired of the neglect, the lies and the lack of responsibility and accountability” by CHA.
“This ordinance represents that we have to start somewhere,” she said.