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Wrong CHA priorities deny many of the poor a better home

Using a CHA voucher, a single woman and her two children live in this South Loop condo. She pays $143 a month. The CHA pays $2,877. (Zillo Photo)

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Fifty thousand families in Chicago, many of them very poor, wait on a list for a government voucher to help pay the rent on a better home.

If only there were more money. Where did it go?

EDITORIAL

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Downtown, a single woman lives in a two-bedroom condo for which she pays $248 a month. Federal taxpayers, via the Chicago Housing Authority, pay the rest — $2,752.

In the South Loop, a family of four lives rent-free in a townhouse for which the CHA pays $3,911 a month.

Near Navy Pier, a woman and two other people live in a three-bedroom condo for which they pay $201 a month, with the CHA kicking in the remaining $3,579.

It is a sign of serious mismanagement that the CHA would pay those kinds of extraordinarily high rents for some needy families while relegating to a waiting list tens of thousands of other low-income families. Those on the list are no doubt every bit as eager to leave behind high-poverty and high-crime neighborhoods.

If the CHA were to divide in half that $3,579 rent voucher for the family living near Navy Pier, for example, two families could be given vouchers of $1,789, enough to cover the rent on an apartment in many, if not most, safe and solid Chicago neighborhoods.

The CHA says it began phasing out those luxury-level rents in 2014, and will not renew more contracts as they expire over the next two years. But it’s hard to understand what the CHA was thinking to begin with. An apparent overemphasis on one laudable goal, to ends barriers to subsidized housing in all city neighborhoods, unwisely put damaging limits on what should always be the CHA’s primary goal, to provide better housing for as many needy people as possible.

The CHA, according to Watchdog reports in the Sun-Times on Sunday and Monday, provides housing vouchers to more than 107,000 people in nearly 45,000 households in Chicago. The aim is to give these individuals and families a financial hand in leasing an apartment or house in any neighborhood they choose.

The standard allowable rent is based on a “fair market rent” formula for the Chicago region calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, the rate is $980 for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,139 for a two-bedroom, $1,372 for a three-bedroom and so on.

But the CHA has been willing to pay up to triple the standard rent in so-called “opportunity areas” that are a good distance from old public housing clusters. At the moment, 1,332 households benefit from that extra help. The CHA told the Sun-Times and Better Government Association Watchdog reporters that it has been scaling back on such rents, and in the future will not pay more than 1 ½ times a standard rent.

No matter what the CHA does, almost certainly there will always be more families in need of better housing than there is public money to pay for it. The CHA spends almost $36 million in federal funds on the program each month, but the number of people on the waiting list is greater than the number who receive rent vouchers.

All the more reason to spend that money, a huge sum, wisely. Every family moved off the waiting list and into a better home stands a better chance in life, even if the new home does not include a lakefront view.

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