If you were about to move into a building plagued by drug dealers and gang members, you certainly would want your real estate agent to clue you in.
Yet the Chicago Housing Authority, effectively the real estate agent for some 107,000 low-income people, does not alert its clients when they are about to make that mistake. It does not warn them that the building they are seeking to move into is on the Chicago Police Department’s “troubled buildings” list.
This cannot go on. Even the poorest of the poor deserve to be told when there is danger ahead.
The CHA likes to say it is in the people business, not the housing business. The goal of its ambitious Plan for Transformation, now almost two decades old, is to help tenants in massive public housing projects to move on to better lives wherever they choose — wherever they can find better schools, jobs, transportation and safety. But while most of the old CHA high-rises have been torn down, a lopsided number of former tenants — their rent now paid with CHA vouchers — continue to live in the same impoverished West Side and South Side neighborhoods.
The CHA’s failure to warn tenants of “troubled buildings,” as reported in Sunday’s Sun-Times, clearly exacerbates this problem. And making matters worse, the Police Department does not notify CHA voucher holders when their buildings are added to the list. In general, according to the investigative report by the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association, the CHA has done little to inform tenants on matters of crime and safety, whether in a building, down the block or in the neighborhood.
Consider the plight of Lakesha Mack, a mother of four who used a CHA voucher to move into a bungalow in Humboldt Park 13 months ago. She thought the neighborhood was on the rebound. But now she watches drug deals go down in a vacant lot across the street, and over three months earlier this year four people were murdered within two blocks of her home.
“Yes, we choose to move where we want,” Mack told the Sun-Times and BGA. “But what they could do better is advise us.”
The heart of the matter is that the CHA has made little progress in efforts to encourage low-income families to move throughout the Chicago area. Instead, the city has seen growing concentrations of poverty, with the usual associated social problems. As the Sun-Times reported in June, most former CHA high-rise tenants using vouchers now live in just 10 neighborhoods, whether those neighborhoods are up for it or not.
The CHA is behind schedule in building mixed-income housing in all areas of the city, which should be part of the solution. Many neighborhoods — mostly white and mostly not poor — resist such housing, as do their aldermen. The CHA, which likes to call these neighborhoods “opportunity areas,” hasn’t made much headway.
But our takeaway from Sunday’s story is that the CHA’s failure is more basic: It’s doing a poor sales job. While it is true that clients choose where they live — nobody can dictate that decision — the CHA clearly has not been spelling out the pros and cons too well. If it did, the agency would be loudly warning clients when they are about to move into a “troubled building.” That warning alone, one suspects, might lead a client to leave his or her comfort zone — the old and familiar neighborhood — and rent elsewhere in the city or suburbs.
Cynics have long complained that City Hall and the CHA, dating back to when Richard M. Daley was mayor, have never been serious about uplifting people with the Plan for Transformation. They claim the real game has been to clear out the poor to make way for the wealthy.
We have never believed that. We believe the Plan for Transformation was launched in a sincere effort to end the unconscionable warehousing of poor people, mostly minorities, in high-rise ghettos.
But the CHA’s failure to build more mixed-income housing throughout the city, and its failure to steer former high-rise tenants to neighborhoods and towns throughout the Chicago area, does not bode well for that noble mission’s success.
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