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CHA CEO Jones dismisses speculation he’s on his way out the door to New York

Eugene Jones Jr., CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, outside homes in Roosevelt Square, which replaced the old ABLA homes under the CHA's "Plan for Transformation." | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Housing Authority CEO Eugene Jones Jr. on Wednesday shot down speculation that he’s on his way out the door and headed for New York City.

Media reports out of New York have placed Jones on a short list of contenders to run that city’s housing authority. Some stories have identified Jones as the front-runner.

New York has been under pressure to choose a new board chair and CEO in the next 30 days as part of a settlement agreement with federal prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The New York City Housing Authority already has a federal monitor.

On Wednesday, Jones confronted those rumors head-on during a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago that concluded with a standing ovation.

“I need to dispel a rumor real quickly. There’s been news articles that I’m leaving to go to New York City,” he told the crowd.

“I’m gonna tell you right now. I’ve not interviewed for a job. I’ve not talked to anyone for a job. Any of that. OK? It’s an honor for someone to even think about going to run the largest housing authority in North America. That’s fine and dandy. But I have made my commitment to CHA, to my residents, to my staff and also to my board.”

Jones’ contract runs through Dec. 31, 2020 and includes a golden parachute of sorts. He’s guaranteed a full year’s pay — $291,500 — and six months of health insurance for himself and his family if he’s fired without cause.

With a new mayor expected to make wholesale changes at city departments and public agencies, Jones joked openly about having talked to CHA Board chairman John Hooker about his uncertain status.

“I said, ‘John, three companies are after me. What should I do? Look at, maybe an increase in salary. So we sat down. We started talking. He finagled. We discussed it. And he said, `OK, Gene. 5 percent.’ I said, `OK,'” Jones said.

“As I was leaving his office, he says, `Gene, I want to ask you. Who were the three companies?’ I said, `The gas, the cable and the electric companies.'”

In 2015, Jones left the Toronto Community Housing Corporation under a cloud after a scathing report by that city’s ombudsman, and arrived at the CHA, becoming its fifth CEO in four years.

Jones had resigned the Toronto job “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.

In Chicago, those controversies have been washed away by Jones’ energetic performance to finally get, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it, “close to delivering” the long-stalled Plan for Transformation promised by former Mayor Richard M. Daley when CHA high-rises were dismantled.

In December, a settlement was reached to resolve a 52-year-old lawsuit — known as the Gautreaux case — alleging racial discrimination in the way public housing was located in Chicago.

The CHA and Business and Professional People in the Public Interest, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, hammered out a “detailed road map” to complete the requirements for CHA to “offset the impacts of racial segregation caused by its historic building and tenant assignment practices.”

Their goal is to close the Gautreaux case by July 31, 2024.

Emanuel introduced Jones to the City Club and sent a clear signal to his successor that, even if there’s a housecleaning, Jones should be a keeper.

“The old way of doing work was just counting units built. But, housing without a library, housing without a grocery store, housing without a transportation center is an island of housing isolated from a neighborhood,” the mayor said.

“The legacy that Gene has built at CHA is to re-invent, re-imagine what a housing authority can be. It is not, by itself, just counting housing units — whether it’s Section 8 vouchers or how many units you build. But when you put those units around with all the other pillars that build a neighborhood, then you build something where the residents that rely on public housing become part of a community where they can raise their kids.”