THE WATCHDOGS: Sex predators living in public housing despite ban
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Twenty years ago, a 9-year-old girl from Cabrini-Green was abducted, sexually assaulted, poisoned and left for dead in a crime that dominated the news as much for the resilience of the young victim as for the raw brutality.
Initially known only as Girl X to protect her identity, she was left severely disabled, though she was still able to testify against her attacker, Patrick Sykes, a convicted sex offender who had been living at the Near North Side public housing complex.
A year after the Jan. 9, 1997, attack, Congress passed a law barring many sex offenders from living in public housing. The law applies to all of those who have to register where they live with the police for the rest of their lives — a requirement typically reserved for the most serious sex offenders, those known in Illinois as sexual predators.
The law put Chicago Housing Authority units off-limits to them. And they also were barred from living in privately owned apartments or houses where the rent is subsidized by taxpayers through Section 8 housing-assistance vouchers.
Two decades later, though, sexual predators are still living in public housing in Chicago, according to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found 20 sexual predators say they live in public housing despite the ban:
• Six have registered with the police as living at addresses that are buildings owned or operated by the CHA.
• Another 14 have registered their home addresses as apartments or homes where the rent is paid in full or part with a Section 8 voucher — taxpayer money that comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD.
• One of those 14 — who was convicted of assaulting a 9-year-old — reported he lives in a Section 8 apartment where, until recently, taxpayers covered 72 percent of the $1,050 monthly rent.
The Sun-Times documented sexual predators living in subsidized housing by matching CHA property records to an Illinois State Police database that includes the names and exact addresses of all registered sex offenders in Illinois, along with photos and brief descriptions of their crimes.
Reporters also conducted interviews and site visits, confirming that sexual predators were indeed living at CHA addresses, though it’s unclear whether they were on CHA leases or were just staying there in violation of the rules.
The greatest number of all registered sex offenders in Chicago live on the South Side and the West Side, according to an analysis based on public records — areas with the heaviest concentrations of public housing subsidies.
Austin on the Far West Side has 96 sex offenders — the largest number in the city, records show. It also has 3,422 public housing units and vouchers.
West Englewood on the South Side has 1,096 public housing units and vouchers and 87 registered sex offenders.
The highest number of registered sex offenders per capita is in Washington Park on the South Side. It also has the highest ratio of public housing units.
Overall, roughly two-thirds of voucher-holders and public housing residents in Chicago live within 1,000 feet of a registered sex offender, records show.
The CHA has started four eviction proceedings in response to the Sun-Times’ findings that 20 sexual predators say they live in public housing.
“If and when CHA becomes aware of a violation of . . . HUD rules, we immediately begin an investigation that can lead to lease or housing assistance payment termination proceedings if warranted,” CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan says. “At this time, CHA is pursuing termination proceedings against two [Section 8] head of households and eviction proceedings against two public housing residents, as CHA has determined that they are in apparent violation of program guidelines.”
Sullivan wouldn’t identify those families by name or address, citing privacy rules. She also wouldn’t say whether any or all of the four households had sexual predators as tenants or guests or explain how the CHA came to its decisions.
The CHA hires a private company to conduct criminal background checks on prospective tenants over the age of 18 and also conducts follow-up checks on existing tenants every two years. Those checks are supposed to catch sexual predators.
That firm, Screening Reports, Inc., of Wood Dale — which has a three-year, $2.4 million contract with the CHA — declined to comment.
Sullivan wouldn’t say why the CHA was taking action in just four instances when the Sun-Times found 20 sexual predators saying they live in public housing.
The background checks apply only to people on the leases. So anyone not on the rolls — say, someone who’s staying with family or friends — could slip through.
The CHA doesn’t do with any regularity what the newspaper did — match the registered addresses of sex offenders, which are available online, against the addresses of its properties and Section 8 housing.
HUD’s inspector general identified this issue as a problem in a 2009 report in which it estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 families in subsidized housing across the country included sex offenders who shouldn’t be living in the units because they were subject to a lifetime registration with police.
In total, households with sexual predators received about $12.5 million a year nationwide in public housing subsidies, according to the inspector general.
In Chicago, the Section 8 units where the 14 predators report living receive a total of nearly $11,000 a month in taxpayer rent subsidies, records show — about $130,000 a year.
Most Section 8 tenants pay a portion of their rent beyond the subsidy. How much depends on their income. In one instance, $763 of the $1,050 monthly rent was covered by a Section 8 voucher until the end of November, when the CHA says the tenant voluntarily relinquished the subsidy.
That came after the Sun-Times began inquiring about one of the people who, according to the Illinois State Police database, lives in the apartment: a sexual predator who molested a 9-year-old.
A woman at that address who identified herself as the sex offender’s mother said her son uses the address for mail but doesn’t live there, usually staying in homeless shelters.
Another one of the addresses associated with the 14 sexual predators had its Section 8 voucher terminated several months ago, Sullivan says, declining to divulge the reason.
The Sun-Times investigation also found that more than 200 registered sex offenders — including those not designated as predators — say they live in privately owned buildings in Chicago that also include at least one Section 8 tenant elsewhere in the building.
The CHA screens tenants for credit and criminal histories and inspects private apartments for code violations before a Section 8 resident can move in. But the agency does little to warn tenants of any registered sex offenders living in the same building or nearby.
Some housing advocates say more discretion should be given to housing agencies to accept applicants, that not all sex offenders pose the same risk of reoffending — yet many are lumped together in the public housing ban, whether they were caught urinating out in the open or assaulting a child.
Housing rules should consider “past behavior and mitigating circumstances, not just criminal records,” says Deborah Thrope, staff attorney for the National Housing Law Project.
Housing restrictions can have unintended consequences, according to Human Rights Watch — such as forcing sex offenders into homelessness, depriving them of a fundamental human right and also making it difficult to monitor their whereabouts.
RELATED LINK: Click here to see where sex offenders live in Chicago.
Joseph Shuldiner, who ran the CHA when Girl X was attacked and now oversees a housing authority in suburban New York City, says, “We should start with the presumption they should be barred, but they should be allowed to make a case.”
“The real issue is whether the person remains a threat to their neighbors,” Shuldiner says.
HUD’s inspector general is planning another audit to determine how well public housing agencies around the country are complying with the sex-offender ban.
A HUD spokesman says the agency has been in contact with the CHA about the Sun-Times’ findings. The first step is to confirm the numbers “and, if it’s true,” find out “why it occurred,” spokesman Jereon Brown says.
“If we find there’s a loophole and we can close it . . . it’s something we’ll definitely take a look at.”
Contributing: Darnell Little, Data Reporting Lab