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Activists: Use $440 million surplus to ease homelessness

Housing activists and their City Council allies on Wednesday turned up the heat on the Chicago Housing Authority to spend its $440 million surplus to confront homelessness.

At a City Hall news conference prior to a City Council meeting, the Chicago Housing Initiative argued that thousands of Chicagoans sleeping in the streets, beneath viaducts and doubled-up with relatives would have an alternative to homelessness, if only the CHA started using its unspent millions.

Last fall, housing activists introduced a so-called “Keeping the Promise” ordinance that would tighten the reins on the CHA.

The CHA would be required to file quarterly reports to the City Council’s Housing Committee on its “vacant and offline housing ward-by-ward.” The reports would include the voucher utilization rate and progress on building replacement public housing.

The stalled ordinance also would make future City Council funding for CHA projects contingent on the CHA using 97 percent of the funding it receives for its voucher program.

Minus administrative costs, the CHA receives enough federal funding to distribute as many as 9,000 vouchers. The Chicago Housing Initiative wants the CHA to ramp it up, to the tune of 3,000 a year over the next three years.

The ordinance also would require “one-for-one replacement” of low-income housing units and put the brick on city land swaps or planned development applications involving CHA land unless the CHA produces a replacement plan.

During Wednesday’s news conference, the CHA was accused of failing to circulate over 13,500 vouchers a year since 2008 and leaving $100 million unspent every year.

That’s how the agency has managed to accumulate a $440 million surplus that’s enough to bankroll 62,000 vouchers for the homeless and others needing affordable housing.

One day before Chicago discloses results of its annual homeless count,  Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), lead sponsor of the stalled ordinance, turned up the heat on Housing Committee Chairman Ray Suarez (31st).

“It’s been almost five months with no hearing and no commitment from our colleague, Ald. Suarez. The coldest months that we have in the city — and we haven’t even had a hearing yet. What are you afraid of?” Moreno said.

“If you want to come to our hearing and speak out against our ordinance, that’s your right. But it’s not your right to not have a hearing. Have a hearing and listen to these stories.”

Moreno said the CHA is in a unique position to help solve Chicago’s homeless crisis.

“One of the only agencies in the nation that is cash-rich. We’re not going to them and saying, ‘Create money. Add a new tax on citizens. Add new fees.’ They have the money. Millions of dollars. We’re not asking them to do something they don’t have. They got it,” he said.

Suarez countered, “I’m not afraid of anything. . . . I’m not holding it up. CHA is doing some work on it and they haven’t gotten all the facts ready for me to have a hearing. I don’t consider it a roadblock. They’re doing some work on the information they want to put together. I’m gonna call the CHA chairman this week, find out when he’ll have his facts together, then call a hearing.”

Last year, the Chicago’s annual homeless count showed there were 1,000 people living on the street during one of the most brutal winters in recent memory.

But Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) said that’s an under-count.

“Everybody that is homeless is not sleeping on the street. They’re not on Lower Wacker Drive. They’re in extended families. If you are living with a family member or a friend and they can get up anytime and say, ‘Get out of my house,’ you are homeless,” Foulkes said.