Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice to become the Chicago Housing Authority’s fifth CEO in four years left the Toronto Community Housing Corporation under a cloud after a scathing report by the city ombudsman there.
Eugene Jones resigned last year “by mutual agreement” — with a $200,000 severance package — after being accused of exercising an “abject failure of leadership” and creating a “climate of fear” at an agency that had shelled out $1.6 million in severance in 2013.
Toronto City Ombudsman Fiona Crean said Jones and his leadership team flouted rules governing hiring and firing, ignored conflicts of interest, gave managers sudden and unjustified raises and “recklessly” fired underlings.
Jones had already been stripped of a bonus after a separate investigation into the salary paid to his six-figure executive assistant and the abrupt departure of his chief operating officer.
The ombudsman’s report did not sit well with then-Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, who became a worldwide laughingstock after being caught on video smoking crack cocaine.
At the time, Ford called Jones’ departure “one of the worst days in Toronto’s history” and said, if anyone should resign, it should be the ombudsman.
Jones, who has been working as the CHA’s chief property officer for the last two months, could not be reached for comment.
Emanuel’s office defended Jones as having a “proven track record” as a “solution-driven leader in public housing” with a big-city track record of “maximizing resources” to benefit those in desperate need of public housing.
Bonnie Booth, a 33-year resident of Toronto public housing resident, argued that Jones got a raw deal.
“The ombudsman was out to get Mayor Rob Ford and, because she couldn’t get him and Mr. Jones was perceived as being hired by Rob Ford, which wasn’t even true, the ombudsmen wanted to get rid of Mr. Jones,” Booth said.
“He was uncovering and cleaning up the corruption that’s just rampant at TCHC. I am thrilled for Chicago. You’re getting a CEO who genuinely cares about residents and staff, gives out his cellphone number and holds residents and staff accountable. He’s very fair. Mr. Jones came in and gave us hope.”
Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, said she’s “concerned” about the circumstances surrounding Jones’ departure from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
“It sounds like he works with a heavy hand. His use of authority was described as arbitrary. Clearly, CHA needs stronger leadership. But I’m not sure it needs that type of of iron hand,” she said.
But Levinger said she’s more alarmed about the CHA’s revolving door during Emanuel’s tenure and what she sees as the lack of clear direction from the mayor’s office that has allowed the public housing agency to sit on a $440 million surplus.
Jones replaces Michael Merchant, who was preceded by Charles Woodyard, Carlos Ponce and Lewis Jordan.
Woodyard resigned after the CHA agreed to a $99,000 settlement with a former staffer who had accused Woodyard of sexual harassment. Jordan was forced out amid questions about his credit card spending on lavish meals and employee gifts.
“The constant churning of senior leadership is disruptive to progress. It also scapegoats agency heads for what we believe is a lack of direction from the Emanuel administration,” Levinger said.
“The CHA isn’t moving forward and the lack of progress is pinned on each successive CEO. In that vacuum, senior leadership has not felt clear they have a mandate to act or what that mandate is, so they don’t act at all.”
Levinger noted that the CHA was building an average of 800 housing units a year during the decade before Emanuel took office. Under Emanuel, those rates steadily plummeted, from 400 units in 2011 to just 49 last year.
Meanwhile, the CHA is sitting on a $440 million surplus at a time of unprecedented need.
When the CHA opened its waiting list last fall, 282,000 families applied. Roughly 15,900 of those families identified themselves as homeless.
“It’s unconscionable that they have all that money just laying around. The need is tremendous,” Levinger said.
“I want to lay this at the doorstep of Mayor Emanuel, so whoever the CEO is can make full use of all of the available resources through construction and voucher programs.”
Elizabeth Rosenthal, supervising attorney for the housing practice group for the organization formerly known as the Legal Assistance Foundation, said every time a new CEO comes in, it “sets the clock back” while the new chief “gets up to speed.”
“There were supposed to be 25,000 units of rehabilitated or replacement housing, and we’re still waiting for several thousand units. Most of it is for low-income families. There are many displaced families who’ve been waiting more than 10 years. Some got lost. Some have temporary Section 8 vouchers. Some have moved to other neighborhoods while they await their return,” Rosenthal said.
“There’s a lot of money CHA is holding back and is not being transparent about why they are holding it and what they intend to do with it, which is frustrating at a time when we’re waiting on new housing to be built.”
During the mayoral campaign, vanquished challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia joined housing activists and their City Council allies in turning up the heat on the CHA to spend the $440 million surplus.
They argued that the CHA’s bureaucratic inertia underscored the need for a stalled, “Keeping the Promise” ordinance that would tighten the reins on the CHA.
The ordinance would require the CHA to file quarterly reports to the City Council’s Housing Committee; make future City Council funding for CHA projects contingent on the CHA using 97 percent of the funding it receives for its voucher program; require “one-for-one replacement” of low-income housing units and put the brick on city land swaps or planned development applications involving CHA land unless the CHA produces a replacement plan.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), newly elected chairman of the City Council’s Housing Committee, said he believes there is a “reasonable explanation” for why the CHA has been slow to build replacement housing, but agency chiefs have done a “lousy job” communicating with residents.
“I plan to call in the new CHA chief and ask him to explain exactly what the deal is. What are their plans to provide more housing and wrap-around services?” Moore said.
“When an agency is sitting on a pile of money and they haven’t provided a clear explanation, it looks like they don’t know what they’re doing. “