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Emanuel blasts CHA voucher program as policy ‘gone awry’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday condemned what he called a well-intentioned policy “gone awry” that has allowed the Chicago Housing Authority to rent luxury apartments at extravagant rents for some needy families while leaving others out in the cold.

Emanuel stressed that the policy “pre-dates my tenure.” The only way to get rid of it is to phase it out, even though he would prefer to go cold turkey, he said.

“The problem I have is, because you’re spending so much on one [family], you could have actually helped two or three more families. That, to me, is what’s wrong,” the mayor said.

“I understand the principle and I support the principle of taking families, most importantly their children, out of the geographic confines of poverty. But it’s been executed in a way where, rather than helping more families, you’re helping fewer families. That’s the problem.”

The CHA 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.

Chicago’s public housing divide, a Watchdogs / BGA special report

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.

But, according to Watchdogs/BGA special report in the Chicago Sun-Times, 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. But, until then, the excesses continue.

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.

Emanuel’s disgust with how the policy was executed stems from the long CHA waiting list and that the need for housing vouchers far exceeds the $36 million in federal funding spent on the program each month.

“The purpose of the policy is correct. [But] it’s been executed poorly. Getting families housing outside of the context of poverty is not only an admirable goal, it’s an essential goal because we know, based on a lot of research, that children raised in a different context have a different value system. So that’s a good thing,” the mayor said.

“How it got executed to the point that you’re buying unbelievably, incredibly expensive housing — which means that the dollars you try to stretch to more families is limited — is wrong. It’s a bad story, good story. One thing is right. It’s a policy that is trying to solve a problem correctly so poorly administered, it went awry.”

Also on Tuesday, Emanuel vowed to collect $15 million in unpaid parking tickets, red-light and speed camera fines and overdue water bills owed by Uber and Lyft drivers without requiring them to obtain chauffeurs licenses, just like cabdrivers are required to do.

“As we put in our budget, we have a debt check. By May, they’ve got to be clear [of debt to the city] or they’re out of that job,” the mayor said.

“Even before anybody had even identified this problem, we put a system in place to identify drivers who are running up parking tickets, other types of tickets and not paying them. If they have not paid their bills by May, they cannot drive for the company.”

Emboldened by the $15 million debt, the taxicab industry’s City Council allies are making a renewed push for licensing ride-hailing drivers. Some aldermen view the move as a pivotal step to saving a taxicab industry “on the verge of collapse.”

Emanuel has resisted such a move as a competition-killer, but aldermen insist they have the votes to approve the licensing ordinance over the mayor’s objections.