PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday February 18th, 2015, 4:10pm

Chicago Mayoral Candidates Discuss Housing Issues, CHA Oversight At Forum

Chicago's mayoral candidates took to the stage to discuss a plethora of housing issues, including vouchers, single room occupancies and Chicago Housing Authority oversight, at a Tuesday night mayoral forum. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the event.

Subsidized housing vouchers, single room occupancy units and Chicago Housing Authority oversight were just a few of the topics addressed at a Tuesday evening mayoral forum hosted by the Chicago Housing Initiative.

Three of Chicago's five mayoral candidates -- Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), community activist William "Dock" Walls and businessman Willie Wilson -- attended the event, held at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, 2976 S. Wabash Ave. The two other candidates, incumbent Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia were not present, although Garcia's campaign sent a representative to observe. 

The event drew a few hundred members of various housing and community advocacy groups.

Miguel Suarez, with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and a resident of the near Northwest Side's Lathrop Homes, a public housing development, said the person elected mayor must commit to requiring "one-for-one replacement" of standing public housing units that go into redevelopment.

"Too much public housing has been demolished, gotten rid of, and next to none has been replaced," Suarez told Progress Illinois after the event. "So one-to-one replacement, I believe, should be No. 1 on their list."

During the forum, candidates were asked what they would do, if elected, to ensure that one-for-one replacement public housing is required for all future CHA projects. The candidates were also asked how they would "hold CHA more accountable" for replacing the outstanding public housing units the agency has promised to bring back.

"CHA had a plan for transformation, but no plan for reclamation," Walls told the crowd. "They promised to bring people back to that land."

Ensuring replacement public housing is addressed starts with having a CHA board that is comprised of mostly current or former public housing residents, Walls said. This type of CHA leadership, he added, would "empower" CHA residents "to make decisions that are best for them." 

Fioretti called for more "responsive" CHA leadership, saying, "They absolutely just stopped building. They haven't done anything."

The alderman maintains that "CHA has the money" to build outstanding CHA replacement public housing units. Fioretti pledged that, if elected, future CHA projects would meet one-for-one replacement requirements.

Wilson did not directly answer questions about replacement housing, talking instead about the economic "empowerment" of CHA residents and other low-income earners. He says the key to achieving such empowerment lies in providing them with more opportunities to own the places in which they live as well as the ability to start businesses and create jobs. He touched on his "economic power is freedom" theme multiple times throughout the forum, saying housing issues should be tackled through a "business approach" and that more CHA contracts should be awarded to African-American contractors.

When asked by Progress Illinois to elaborate on his economic "empowerment" plan after the event, Wilson said, "In order to give them an opportunity to buy these places [to live in], to make a decent living, you've got to start with (the) root."

"I'm saying give them contracts, [so] that they can get in business together, so that way they can lift (themselves) up like I did," he said. "If you got a few business people in the community, start a business; then they will hire the rest of the community."

Various questions at the forum centered around a Center for Tax and Budget Accountability report issued this past summer, which found that the CHA built up large cash reserves over recent years by holding onto millions of dollars in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.

Each year between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer housing vouchers than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded, the report found. And between 2008 and 2012, the CHA accumulated $432 million in reserves.

In response to the center's analysis, several aldermen with the support of the Chicago Housing Initiative introduced an ordinance in September that would provide the council with greater oversight of the CHA and expand access to affordable housing. The so-called "Keeping the Promise" ordinance has been stuck in committee since its introduction. Emanuel has not announced his support for the measure.

A One Northside member, who said she has been homeless for more than two years and has tried unsuccessfully for decades to get into CHA's Housing Choice Voucher Program, asked the candidates what they would do about voucher problems.

Fioretti, who co-sponsored the "Keeping the Promise" ordinance in the council, said he supports "full voucher utilization, so we have to find ways to succeed in that."

Additionally, the alderman said there needs to be stronger efforts around building new affordable housing units and rehabbing vacant homes. 

The city could "take (vacant homes) by eminent domain, put them back on the market, put you in a home like that, that's been built by the people here in this city," Fioretti said. "And we need to do it across the city, otherwise we have the isolated pockets that have caused the problem of segregation and inequality in this city."

Walls called for improvements to Chicago's homelessness prevention initiatives and said CHA vouchers must be "provided right away" to those in need of housing.

"There's absolutely no reason to avoid handing out those vouchers," he stressed.

Wilson, who again discussed economic empowerment, said, "We must find ways to make sure that you can own the property in which you live in. I think we got to figure out this thing together and figure out some type of business that we can get going so that government can't just take control of your lives and run your life." 

Another question focused on a recently-approved ordinance meant to curb the loss of single room occupancy (SRO) and residential hotel units to market-rate development in the city. Emanuel, along with Alds. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ameya Pawar (47th), spearheaded the measure, which passed the council in November.

The candidates were asked what actions they would take to guarantee the SRO protection ordinance has the resources needed for proper implementation.

Fioretti, who voted in favor of the SRO preservation plan, said his "only objection to the ordinance as we passed it at the time was it didn't have the resources, and there wasn't a real commitment there." 

"We need the resources. We have them. Let's enforce it," the alderman said. "Let's make sure that people have good, quality homes. And the SRO ordinance is just the start of what we need to achieve."

Walls called the SRO ordinance an "unfunded mandate," saying, "It felt good. It looked good. It sounded good, but there was no money attached."

"We have to preserve SROs, because there are many people who choose that as their style of living, and people ought to have that option and not be forced to live under different circumstances like in a homeless shelter," he said.

Wilson did not speak specifically to SROs during his response. 

"We do not have any power unless we come out to vote," Wilson said during his turn to speak on the issue. "Vote the right people in office and let's get this thing done. I'm here to fight for you."

The discussion moderator interjected, asking Wilson to answer whether he supports preserving SROs.

Wilson danced around the question, saying, "When you start doing economic empowerment and things of that nature, then you can take care of these other things. When you come out and start voting you can start taking care of things ... I support anything that the people support (to help them) make a decent living." 

As far as the other mayoral candidates, Emanuel has taken some steps to create additional affordable housing and redevelop vacant properties. In addition to backing the SRO housing preservation ordinance, Emanuel is throwing his weight behind a recently-proposed plan to strengthen the city's Affordable Requirements Ordinance.

Garcia founded and formerly served as executive director of Enlace, a neighborhood development organization in Little Village that has, among other things, worked to "upgrade community housing." He also spearheaded an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance that extended fair housing protections to people with federal housing vouchers.

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