CHA danger zones — a Sun-Times / BGA Watchdogs special report
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On the South Side, a 22-year-old Chicago man the police said was a gang member was shot to death May 27 inside a Washington Park apartment described as “a known gang hangout.”
At another South Side apartment, a 25-year-old man was gunned down along with another man on Valentine’s Day.
At a house in Englewood, three people were shot and killed May 12.
These killings — part of the surge in violence in Chicago this year — all occurred at a home or apartment whose rent was covered totally or in part by the federal government through Section 8 “housing choice” vouchers issued by the Chicago Housing Authority.
When the CHA began tearing down crime-ridden high-rise public housing projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes under its massive “Plan for Transformation,” residents were promised a better life. But 20 years later, many of the people receiving housing vouchers from the CHA are living in privately owned homes and apartments on blocks plagued by violence, drug dealing and gangs.
The CHA says that’s their “choice.”
That’s a word CHA officials have used repeatedly in responding to a series of stories by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association since April that have found the Section 8 housing program in Chicago is riddled with problems and inequities and has enriched some landlords even as most recipients continue to live in largely segregated neighborhoods.
Most CHA residents — more than 107,000 people — are now living in privately owned apartments and houses, with their rent subsidized through Section 8 “housing choice” vouchers that cost taxpayers more than $430 million a year. Those admitted to the program find their own place to live and use the vouchers to pay some or all of the rent, with the amount depending on factors including income and family size.
But the housing authority, whose board is appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has done little to inform tenants’ choice regarding crime and safety.
Before someone with a voucher can move in to a house or apartment, the CHA requires an inspection to help ensure that tenants aren’t living in a building that’s physically unsafe, paying millions of dollars a year to two companies to do those inspections and to conduct yearly checks once a voucher-holder moves in.
The CHA does nothing, though, to warn those with Section 8 subsidies about crime on their block or even in their buildings. The agency doesn’t alert voucher-holders when they’re seeking to move in to a building that’s on the Chicago Police Department’s “troubled buildings” list. Nor are they notified if their building is added to the list.
The police department has 19 officers in its troubled buildings unit. They work with City Hall’s legal and building departments to resolve problems at buildings deemed to pose a danger because of criminal activity, including drug dealing or gangs, as well as building-code violations.
They share information with the CHA on the troubled buildings, according to Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the agency, which administers public housing in Chicago for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But Sullivan says the agency can’t prevent voucher-holders from renting in such buildings because the federal Section 8 program allows people to live anywhere they want as long as a property passes inspection.
“There’s nothing that would preclude people from moving” to a so-called troubled building, Sullivan says.
In just the first four months of this year, the police added 237 properties to the list that are home to 350 Section 8 voucher households — about 1,000 people in all, records show.
Over the past five years, the police have placed 30,700 buildings on the list, including 17 of the 19 buildings in the 2700 block of West Lexington Street in East Garfield Park. Taxpayers are subsidizing the rents of 17 voucher households — a total of 50 people — living on that block, all of them in troubled buildings, including six buildings added to the list this year.
In a drive-by shooting Monday night, five people were shot, two of them killed, on the sidewalk in front of 2714 W. Lexington — a two-flat that’s home to a voucher-holder.
Lakesha Mack wishes the CHA had warned her about crime in the area when she and her four children moved, with the help of Section 8 assistance, to a brick bungalow in Humboldt Park in August 2015. She says she thought the West Side neighborhood was on the rebound.
Instead, her family has been faced with drug dealing in the vacant lot across the street. A dozen or so small plastic bags, laid out on the grass in front of the home, offer evidence of that.
Altogether, 48 families with vouchers — a total of 150 people, including Mack’s family — live within two blocks of the 3400 block of West Chicago Avenue, which saw four murders in three months earlier this year, all of the victims between 16 and 23 years old.
Mack, 37, says she grew up in a since-demolished high-rise at the CHA’s Henry Horner Homes on the Near West Side.
How does her neighborhood compare to Horner?
“It’s no different,” she says.
She considers for a moment, then says there is one difference: A tall metal fence wraps around her home and a huge gate blocks the driveway.
“The only thing I have is these gates,” Mack says.
Like others who get rental assistance with Section 8 vouchers, Mack found the bungalow on her own.
“Yes, we choose to move where we want,” she says. “But what they could do better is advise us.
“When we looked at this place, it was a nice, quiet block. A day after we moved in, it was like, ‘Holy hell!’ ”
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who grew up in Cabrini-Green and represents the area where Mack lives, says he’s heard similar stories from others.
“I talk to some people with vouchers who say they felt safer in the projects than some of the neighborhoods they’re in now,” Burnett says.
To try to assess how much violent crime is happening around homes the CHA is subsidizing, the Sun-Times and the BGA matched the addresses of Section 8 housing in Chicago against the city’s online crime database.
The analysis found that, during the first six months of this year, the police responded to reported crimes — from thefts to homicides — at 7,379 addresses where at least one voucher-holder lived.
The data also show voucher-holders live at addresses where 30 people were killed.
Some crimes took place on the sidewalk or the street in front of a building where a voucher-holder lived. For others, it’s not clear in which apartment a crime took place. The police database doesn’t give the names of the victims, and the CHA, citing federal privacy restrictions, won’t identify Section 8 voucher-holders. So it’s impossible to determine exactly how many of the victims — or those charged in their deaths — were getting government housing assistance.
But the Sun-Times and the BGA used police and court records to determine that two voucher-holders were killed, along with five others who were at the homes of voucher-holders. The other 23 victims were killed elsewhere in an apartment building where at least one voucher-holder lived or outside the building.
And one voucher-holder was charged with murder.
The CHA says that when it learns that Section 8 voucher-holders have been charged with crimes, it can revoke their taxpayer-subsidized assistance.
But communication between the CHA and the police department is inconsistent. The police sometimes send the CHA detailed reports about crimes that occur on blocks where voucher-holders live, records show, but other times they send just a one-line summary. CHA officials say they haven’t been notified by the police in some instances even after killings at Section 8 properties.
“CPD and the Chicago Housing Authority are in daily communication to ensure that CHA is aware of incidents that may involve the voucher program and can take immediate steps to uphold the rules and regulations of the program,” police spokesman Frank Giancamilli says.
During the first half of this year, the CHA revoked vouchers from 719 households with a total of 1,389 people. Nearly 300 of those were revoked because recipients left their housing, relinquished their vouchers or died. Thirty-four lost their vouchers because of criminal activity.
The Sun-Times and the BGA found other cases in which voucher-holders kept their rent subsidies after members of their household were arrested or convicted of crimes. Some of the offenses appear to have violated federal housing rules, which give the CHA broad latitude to revoke Section 8 vouchers.
Last summer, for instance, Antwon Sifore, 22, was charged with dealing PCP out of a North Lawndale apartment that his mother leases with the help of a voucher, according to court and CHA records.
“I don’t want to violate my Section 8,” the police said Sifore told them after they found drugs in a basement refrigerator inside the home.
CHA officials say they never received the police report on that arrest.
A week after Sifore’s arrest, the police were back at the same building in the 1600 block of South Homan Avenue, where they arrested his older brother Robert Sifore on a warrant in another drug case.
In November, while free on bail, Robert Sifore was arrested again. This time, the police said he was dealing crack cocaine in front of the building while on home confinement and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet as a result of the prior arrest.
Robert Sifore, 23, is now in prison on a drug conviction from his July 2015 arrest. His younger brother is on probation as a result of his arrest.
CHA officials sent their mother, Aletha Cooper, three letters in the past two years to warn her she could lose her voucher because of criminal activity on the premises and for having an unauthorized tenant in her apartment. Under the agency’s rules and federal guidelines, a voucher can be revoked “if any household member is currently engaged in or has engaged in” drug-related criminal activity within the past five years.
Cooper says her son Antwon no longer is living with her, allowing her to keep her voucher.
CHA officials won’t discuss any tenant by name but confirm that the voucher-holder for the apartment where Cooper lives has passed a criminal-background check and now has only one other person living with her. Cooper says that’s her 6-year-old child.
In other cases, the CHA has moved swiftly to revoke vouchers.
That’s what happened to Sonja Wallace, who was arrested in September 2015, accused of selling crack cocaine from her Auburn-Gresham apartment. About two weeks later, the CHA sent her a letter saying her voucher would be terminated by Halloween. She pleaded guilty earlier this year and no longer has a voucher.
A criminal history doesn’t necessarily preclude someone from receiving Section 8 assistance.
Jeremy Hunter put his name on a CHA waiting list for a voucher in 2008, when he turned 18. Hunter was still waiting for a voucher in 2013 when he was arrested twice for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to court supervision and got his voucher in 2014.
Last year, he moved to an apartment at 50th Street and South Champlain Avenue. Hunter, who reported that he had a job as a home health-care worker, paid $401 toward the monthly rent, while taxpayers covered the rest.
In May 2015, Hunter was a passenger in a car the police pulled over, saying it didn’t have working taillights. Hunter ended up being charged with possession of about an ounce of marijuana — a felony.
Before the case went to court, Hunter told drug-treatment specialists he had a substance-abuse problem and needed help.
The court case hadn’t been decided by Feb. 14, when Hunter and another man, 26-year-old Steven Tate, were found dead at Hunter’s apartment. Hunter had been shot once. Tate, who’d been convicted in 2015 of threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend and her family, was shot 17 times.
CHA officials say Hunter had complied with the rules for his voucher and that they weren’t notified by police of the two shooting deaths at the Section 8 property.
Hunter’s landlord, Anthony Oyefeso, says he had asked him to move out because Hunter had let others live with him in violation of his lease.
Hunter and Tate’s murders remain unsolved.
Among the other murder cases at Section 8 properties this year:
• Kevin Larry, identified by the police as a gang member, was found dead May 27 on the living-room floor of an apartment in the 5600 block of South Wabash Avenue in Washington Park that was being leased by another man, who had a CHA voucher. He’d been shot in the chest.
A man and two women who were sleeping in the apartment when the police were called couldn’t tell them why Larry was in the apartment, which an investigator for the Cook County medical examiner’s office called “a known gang hangout spot.”
Larry’s death later attracted attention when the police arrested Dominiq Greer in the case June 13 shortly after Greer had held a news conference at his lawyer’s office to discuss his lawsuit against the police department seeking $15 million. Greer said he was shot seven times when he ran from a police officer in July 2014.
Before Larry was shot to death, the police say Greer had been playing dice outside the home and got into an argument over money. Greer, 25, is being held without bail at the Cook County Jail.
CHA officials say they hadn’t received a report from the police on Larry’s killing.
They say the voucher-holder for the apartment where Larry was shot has since moved out — and that he’d passed a recent criminal background check and remains eligible for a voucher.
• Elsewhere on the South Side, three people — Jerome T. Wright, 50, his 26-year-old stepdaughter Makeesha Starks and Kiara Kinard, also 26 — were shot to death May 12 at a house in Englewood where a voucher-holder lived.
Starks’ boyfriend, Jerome Robinson, 29, had burst in to the home in the 1500 block of West 71st Street looking for her, according to police reports. They say Robinson marched Wright, Kinard and Starks’ mother Carolyn at gunpoint into the basement, where he found Starks, with whom he had a child.
As they headed back upstairs, Carolyn Starks and Wright ran out of the house, and Robinson shot Kinard in the back, killing her, according to the police. Makeesha Starks and Wright also were killed. Carolyn Starks survived.
The police say Robinson drove off and barricaded himself inside a home in the 10300 block of South Union Avenue for 10 hours, exchanging gunfire with SWAT officers before shooting himself in the head.
• A voucher-holder and Vietnam War veteran named Robert Howard Jr. was shot in the head Jan. 30 in the stairwell of his apartment building in the 1000 block of West Maxwell Street near the University of Illinois at Chicago, after he complained about a loud party, according to police reports.
Kevin Mason, 22, has been charged with killing Howard, 62. A neighbor, Charneise Silas, 45, has been charged with aggravated battery, accused of hitting him.
In another case, a Section 8 voucher-holder named Reggie L. Daniel is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death March 2 of another man at his luxury apartment building at 555 W. Kinzie St.
The victim, Darrin Joss, a commodities trader, was killed while working out in the apartment complex’s gym after an argument with Daniel, according to the police.
They say Daniel left the gym, came back with a gun and killed Joss in a shooting caught on surveillance video.
Daniel, 48, had a lengthy criminal record, including a felony conviction in 1989 for selling drugs and a conviction for a 1997 arrest for battery and resisting arrest. Daniel is a paraplegic as the result of being shot 30 years ago and gets around in a wheelchair.
Daniel had used his voucher to lease a one-bedroom apartment on the 15th floor of the building west of the Loop in June 2014 for $2,055 a month, with taxpayers covering $1,884 of that through Section 8.
At the time, he was among 298 voucher-holders whose monthly rent topped $2,000 but received additional help under a CHA program that helps Section 8 recipients move to neighborhoods where there are few poor people, little subsidized housing and a low crime rate.
Again citing privacy restrictions, CHA officials have refused to discuss Daniel, including when he first received his voucher or the results of his criminal background check. Those background checks aren’t shared with landlords.
Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little
Brett Chase is an investigator for the Better Government Association.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority embarked on the largest public housing makeover in the country. The Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association have been examining the effects of the city’s massive “Plan for Transformation.” Click below to read earlier stories.