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Andy Shaw: ‘A fight to make the CHA do its job’

The Chicago Housing Authority is ending a controversial program that covered sky-high rents for some low-income residents. There are tens of thousands on a waiting list for housing. Zillow.com photo.

The Chicago Housing Authority has operated for decades with limited oversight from the federal housing agency that provides most of its funding.

That includes hundreds of millions of unspent dollars Washington sent here in recent years to house people.

Inexplicably, it hasn’t done that — the money’s been sitting in local CHA accounts, unused and accumulating, while tens of thousands of low-income Chicago residents languish on waiting lists for housing opportunities.

Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for new CHA boss Eugene Jones Jr. to release a spending plan for the hoarded cash.

That’s the context for a recent series of stories by the Better Government Association and Chicago Sun-Times illustrating inequities in the housing authority’s massive voucher program.

OPINION

More than 100,000 low-income Chicagoans receive vouchers to live in subsidized private housing — homes, apartments and condos — under a federal program formerly known as “Section 8.”

A special designation by the feds years ago gives local housing officials flexibility in deciding how to manage the program, and that facilitated CHA’s well intentioned but curiously administered “super-voucher” experiment, which paid for rent subsidies three times higher than the federal ceiling to house some people in pricey upscale neighborhoods.

Moving residents out of blighted, racially segregated areas is a commendable goal. But triple the rent? The BGA and Sun-Times found one voucher recipient living in a swanky apartment that cost almost $5,000 a month.

That came as a surprise to a more typical voucher holder who shares a modest South Side bungalow with 14 family members and had no idea CHA was paying for single residents to live in luxury apartments downtown.

Our stories also prompted strong reactions from some public housing advocates who accused us of stigmatizing the folks who live in the expensive digs, and undermining attempts to improve their lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I know and respect some of the critics, but their pushback misses the point: We’re questioning the overall track record of a government agency that chronically underperforms on multiple levels.

Highlighting one flawed program isn’t, as one critic alleged publicly, an “attack on families.”

In response to a question from the Sun-Times, Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the super-voucher program, which predates his tenure, as a well-intentioned idea “gone awry.”

CHA came to the same conclusion two years ago, reducing the agency’s higher rent ceiling. Recently, housing officials told the BGA and Sun-Times the program wasn’t sustainable.

Their conclusion, not ours.

But let’s return to the larger issues: An estimated 50,000 households on waiting lists for vouchers from CHA, while the agency sits on hundreds of millions of federal dollars; and fails to replace thousands of public housing units lost when high-rise towers — Cabrini, Robert Taylor and others — started coming down around 2000.

A Daley Administration commitment to replace that inventory by 2010 still hasn’t been fulfilled.

So we’re hoping our critics keep their focus on the big picture, as the BGA and Sun-Times will continue to do in upcoming housing stories.

This isn’t a fight against poor people — just the opposite.

It’s a fight to make the CHA do its job: Spending our tax dollars wisely and efficiently to house low-income families that deserve safe, affordable domiciles in neighborhoods around the city.

If our stories got the right people’s attention — CHA, City Hall, local advocates and federal housing officials — and sparked a conversation that speeds up long-overdue reforms, that’s a mission accomplished.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga