The CHA’s waiting game: A Sun-Times/BGA special Watchdogs report
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It’s been 18 months since the Chicago Housing Authority closed its wait list for coveted Section 8 housing vouchers, which pay all or part of the rent for poor people to live in homes leased by private landlords.
But since then the agency has added 1,035 households to the list — and handed them vouchers — ahead of about 45,000 households already on the list, many who have been waiting several years, according to CHA records.
All but eight of the 1,035 got their vouchers in less than a year. Four in 10 got them in a week or less.
It’s part of the maddening and unpredictable bureaucracy that often confuses people seeking housing assistance, the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association found. Consider:
• The last time the voucher wait list was open, CHA officials say some 260,000 people applied, so the CHA held a random lottery to decide which people to add to the list. About four of every five didn’t make it.
• While awaiting a voucher or other housing aid, there’s no way for people who end up on the wait lists to monitor their places in line.
• The housing authority also won’t divulge the names of the people waiting — or how long they’ve been waiting.
The average household waits 4.3 years to obtain a “housing choice” voucher, commonly known as Section 8, CHA records show. As for the 1,035 households who jumped to the front, the CHA says all have “special circumstances” that entitled them to quickly obtain a voucher.
The special cases included homeless veterans, families who moved to Chicago with vouchers issued in other cities, as well as former residents of the CHA’s demolished high-rise housing projects who exercised their “rights of return” for housing aid.
“Although the general wait lists are closed, the wait lists . . . remain open to accommodate households facing special circumstances,” CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan says. Federal housing regulations “and CHA policy allow these special admissions because they enable us to serve some of the most vulnerable households in Chicago — households who might otherwise be homeless without CHA assistance.”
One of those special cases involves Roosevelt Hughes, 62, a disabled Vietnam veteran.
“I was homeless,” says Hughes, who said he learned about the voucher program last year from his drug-abuse counselor.
The CHA added Hughes to the voucher wait list on Aug. 28. Five months later, he’d obtained a voucher, and he and his wife moved into a first-floor apartment of an eight-year-old three-flat in Auburn Gresham.
The monthly rent is $1,000. Hughes pays his landlord $456 a month, while taxpayers cover the rest.
“I love my apartment. It’s decent,” says Hughes, a grandfather of two who walks with a cane because “my feet got messed up in the service.”
The demand for vouchers has soared over the past 16 years since the CHA launched its “Plan for Transformation,” which tore down high-rise housing projects and increased the number of vouchers, so poor people can lease apartments, condominiums and houses from private landlords. In Chicago, those landlords collect $560 million a year in rent, 76 percent of that covered by federal taxpayers, the Sun-Times and BGA have reported.
People also can be on multiple housing wait lists at the same time. In all, there are 122,613 names on those lists waiting for a voucher or an apartment that the CHA owns and manages. The voucher list is the largest, with 44,816 names — nearly five times the number of names that were on it 10 years ago.
The lists are rarely open to new applicants; the last time was in late 2014 for only a month. The CHA says it “has not determined” when the wait lists will be reopened.
The CHA also has been criticized by housing advocates who claim the agency has received federal funding to issue thousands of additional vouchers it has yet to hand out.
The authority says it has issued an additional 9,000 vouchers over the past two years and is now providing vouchers to nearly 46,000 households. Sullivan says the CHA spends all but 10 percent of the federal funding it gets for the voucher program, so it can “maintain the flexibility to address other needs at the agency.”
Hughes is among dozens of veterans whom the CHA moved to the front of the voucher waiting line over the past six months through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, CHA records show. That program is overseen by the federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, which funds Section 8 housing programs.
In the past six months, CHA records show Hughes’ household and 44 others quickly received vouchers through the program, called VASH. Several of those households were issued a voucher on the same day they were put on the wait list; others waited a day.
Others who received vouchers in only a few days or weeks over the past six months include 27 households who moved to Chicago after being issued vouchers by other housing authorities, a situation referred to as “porting.”
Dozens of other households who had been tenants in large taxpayer-subsidized developments also were quickly issued vouchers for a variety of reasons, records show. Sometimes, they needed vouchers so they could continue living in buildings that were converted to market-rate apartments after the landlord repaid government loans. Others got vouchers so they could lease market-rate housing and move out of subsidized apartment buildings.
Others jumped the line because they exercised their “right of return,” a promise allowing them first crack at subsidized housing programs because they’d lived in one of the CHA’s demolished high rises.
While some households have been issued a voucher in one day, many have waited a lot longer.
Charvette Gregory was a 19-year-old single mom when she applied to the CHA for a voucher. She went on the wait list on July 24, 2008.
By the time the CHA gave her the voucher last spring — nearly seven years later — she’d had three more children and was eager to move out of her parents’ home.
She ended up in a rundown bungalow on a busy stretch of Halsted Street in Auburn Gresham. Her landlord collects $1,215 a month in rent, all of it covered by taxpayers.
“When I filled it out, my son was 1. When I moved in, he was 10,” Gregory says. “I was calling, maybe every couple of months just to see. I wasn’t told why it took so long to get a place.”
Tim Novak, Chris Fusco and Mick Dumke are Sun-Times reporters. Brett Chase writes for the Better Government Association.