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Revolving door no more: Emanuel hands CHA job to Eugene Jones Jr.

The revolving door that has left the Chicago Housing Authority sitting on a pile of cash with five CEOs in the last four years stopped spinning Friday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel removed the word “acting” from Eugene Jones Jr.’s title and handed him the permanent job after a seven-month audition that has played to rave reviews.

“He’s a man of action. That is what CHA desperately needs and has not had for some time. It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Hoy McConnell, executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

“For the previous couple of administrations, almost nothing happened. Some of that had to do with the state of the development economy and housing but not all of it. He’s taking action and really demonstrating action . . . He knows public housing inside and out. He’s willing to listen. He’s open-minded. And he’s created a whole new climate at CHA and put together a terrific team. There seems to be a new enthusiasm and spirit, which is having an impact on the residents themselves.”

Under Jones, the CHA has issued a request for proposals for the first phase of redevelopment at Cabrini Green. It’s finally starting to spend its $440 million surplus and deliver on the long-stalled, $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation that tore down CHA high-rises and was supposed to replace them with mixed-income communities.

In a news release announcing the permanent appointment, City Hall credited Jones with “accelerating leasing of housing choice vouchers,” establishing “special programs for homeless families and ex-offenders” and spearheading a “25 percent increase in development spending” over the snail’s pace achieved in 2014.

In addition to Cabrini, development plans are inching forward at ABLA, Ickes and Lathrop Homes. Eight projects with a combined 531 units are under construction at Altgeld, Parkside, Casa Queretaro, Rosenwald, Sterling Park and City Gardens, the city contends.

“Gene has already made significant progress at the CHA by accelerating development deals and housing production to get more than 500 units under construction in just seven months time. He has cultivated relationships with residents and other stakeholders,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a news release.

Last summer, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro voiced “continuing concern” over the CHA surplus at a time of unprecedented need and said Emanuel had assured him there was a plan to spend it to build sorely needed housing.

Jones responded by promising to provide “better housing, a lot more housing.” More recently, he branded the CHA’s  performance prior to his arrival as a “disgrace.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), chairman of the City Council’s Housing Committee, said he has been most impressed with the new CEO’s communication skills. Public housing residents are no longer being kept in the dark.

“He has been open and communicative. He goes out and meets with residents. He treats them with dignity and respect. That is worth a lot right there. I’ve been impressed with his accessibility to me. He will be available to me any time, day or night,” Moore said.

“Their main problem in the past has been an utter failure at communication. They have been their own worst enemy. Case in point is this so-called pot of money.  Most of it is designed to build mixed-income housing so public housing residents are not isolated. Until recently, there was an economic depression in real estate. Stuff wasn’t getting built. Gene Jones now appears to be taking advantage of the upturn in the real estate market to move things forward.”

Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, said it matters little who the CHA chief is.

“The question isn’t the figure-head at the top. It’s the policies and priorities the mayor’s office puts in place. There are no clear performance standards of what CHA will be held to,” Levinger said.

Levinger claimed that public housing advocates are close to rounding up the 26 votes needed to pass a stalled, “Keeping the Promise” ordinance that would tighten the reins on the CHA.

It would require CHA to file quarterly reports on its “vacant and offline housing ward-by-ward” and include  voucher utilization rate and progress on building replacement public housing.

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

Moore has promised to hold a hearing on the ordinance, but maintained Friday that the votes are not there to pass it.

To say the CHA chief’s job has been a revolving door under Emanuel would be an understatement.

Jones replaced Michael Merchant, who was preceded by Charles Woodyard, Carlos Ponce and Lewis Jordan.

Woodyard resigned after the CHA agreed to a $99,000 settlement with a former staffer who had accused Woodyard of sexual harassment. Jordan was forced out amid questions about his credit card spending on lavish meals and employee gifts.

The CHA was building an average of 800 housing units a year during the decade before Emanuel took office. Under Emanuel, those rates steadily plummeted, from 400 units in 2011 to just 49 in 2014.

Jones’ current salary is $200,000-a-year. The terms of his contract going forward will be determined at the Feb. 16 CHA board meeting. Earlier this month, the CHA board rewarded Jones with a $10,000 bonus.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last summer that Jones left the Toronto Community Housing Corporation under a cloud after a scathing report by the city ombudsman there.

Jones resigned in 2014 “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.