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Seniors take over CHA lobby to protest faulty elevators, demand oversight

Senior residents stage a "die-in" in the lobby of the Chicago Housing Authority's downtown office during a board meeting in June. This is the same group who filed a complaint against the CHA for not installing grab bars in some of their units. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A vivacious group of senior citizens occupied the Chicago Housing Authority’s downtown office lobby on Tuesday morning to protest what they say are dangerous living conditions at many of the agency’s senior homes across the city.

The action, organized by Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a decades-old grassroots activist group headquartered in the Near North Side, comes two weeks after an investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ revealed how the CHA failed to properly inspect and maintain hundreds of elevators at its public housing facilities since 2015.

Seniors at Tuesday’s protest often referenced the investigation as a clear signal of the CHA’s callousness toward its elder residents.

The group also reiterated long-standing complaints about faulty heating and cooling systems in buildings operated by CHA and alleged retaliatory behavior against senior residents by building managers. Seniors also chastised the CHA for, as one resident put it, “putting the interests of wealthy and politically connected developers over the lives of elders.”

As the protest ramped up in the lobby, another cohort of two-dozen seniors disrupted a CHA board meeting upstairs.

Video by Colin Boyle | CHA senior residents stage a "die-in" in the lobby of Chicago Housing Authority during a CHA board meetin

In a letter addressed to CHA chief executive Eugene Jones Jr., delivered just before Tuesday’s protest, the group called on the agency to install new heating, cooling and elevators in all senior buildings, and to make bathrooms accessible by installing grab bars. The group also called on the CHA to revisit its relocation policy to ensure senior citizens have ample time and notice to move.

The letter also states that the group intends to call on the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday to oversee the CHA as it repairs its crumbling elevator fleet.

“We’ve been working with the CHA for years trying to remedy the situation, but when it comes to making systemic changes, they have failed,” said Kelly Viselman, a senior organizer with Jane Addams Senior Caucus.

Senior residents stage a “die-in” in the lobby of the Chicago Housing Authority’s downtown office during a board meeting. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Senior residents stage a “die-in” in the lobby of the Chicago Housing Authority’s downtown office during a board meeting. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Three-dozen seniors and their allies entered the building shortly before 9:30 a.m. and plopped down on the floor, disregarding warnings from building security to leave the premises. At 9:37 a.m, the group proceeded to stage a two-minute “die-in,” followed by a rendition of the Freedom Song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” The group then held a short press conference where a handful of senior CHA residents related their first-hand experience of enduring winters with unreliable heating and being evicted or relocated from their CHA-operated apartment on short notice.

“I’m tired of all the bulljivin’, Mr. Jones,” Eugene Nelson, a 70-year-old resident of Flannery Apartments on North Clybourn Avenue and Halsted Street. “I want to enjoy my youth — I want to be able to walk out of my building and know I’ll be all right.”

Two clergy members — Pastor Drew Rindfleisch of Bethel Lutheran Church and Rev. Alka Lyall from Broadway United Methodist Church — also spoke during Tuesday’s protest, citing scripture that emphasizes the importance of honoring elders in a community.

Related: Cashing In On the CHA

In a statement provided by an unidentified CHA representative during the protest, the agency says the well-being of its senior residents has “always been” a priority and that “CHA seniors are safe, their buildings are safe and, the elevator systems are safe.” The CHA also says it expects to begin upgrade work on 150 elevators “later this year” as part of its Elevator Modernization Program.

An agency representative said many participants in Tuesday’s action were “brought in” from outside the city.

“You know many of these people are not CHA residents, right?” the representative said disparagingly, adding that “these people” — possibly referring to Jane Addams Senior Caucus — are “always here complaining about the same thing.” All of Tuesday’s speakers identified themselves as residents of various senior buildings operated by the CHA.

When asked to comment on the representative’s remarks, Jeliner Jordan, a 74-year-old resident of the Zelda Ormes Apartments and board co-chair of Jane Addams Senior Caucus, chuckled and sighed.

“If what we’re talking about wasn’t true, we wouldn’t waste our time being here and laying down on the floor,” she said. The “CHA is taking shortcuts, and listening to the bottom line of private contractors, and with these shortcuts, they are endangering our lives.”