Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday September 12th, 2013, 12:43pm

Public Housing Activists: CHA's Plan To Purge 47,000 People From Wait List 'Unacceptable'

Housing activists are outraged that Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) officials are looking to remove more than 47,000 people from its public housing and voucher wait list as proposed in its Moving to Work (MTW) Annual Plan for fiscal year 2014.

“I am stunned by CHA’s decision to strip so many people permanently off the list and to deprive them of a chance for affordable housing,” Mary Nelson, who is homeless and currently on the wait list, said before CHA’s public hearing Wednesday evening regarding the draft plan.

The overall MTW plan is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) MTW demonstration program, which gives public housing authorities the flexibility to come up with and test various approaches to providing quality, affordable housing for low-income families.

In a statement provided to Progress Illinois, CHA said it initiated a wait list update, following HUD guidelines, from December 2012 through February 2013 to allow the agency to house people faster and “more efficiently provide public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers to tens of thousands of low-income residents.”

“As a best practice for wait list management, public housing authorities must regularly update wait lists to have an accurate representation of those in need and those who are interested,” the statement reads. “About 47,000 wait list applicants failed to respond to repeated requests for updated information, either by mail, email or phone calls. They were subsequently removed from the wait list.”

But Nelson and the dozens of others who gathered before Wednesday’s meeting said many of the people waiting for public housing have challenges finding a permanent place to live, and they simply move too many times to keep their current addresses on file. 

“We need the CHA to provide an automatic right to be reinstated on the wait list up to three years for anyone who has been purged from the waiting list who later contacts the CHA,” Nelson demanded.

CHA maintains that the wait list update helped to cut administrative costs. Before the update, CHA says it would have to screen 15 applicants to fill one unit or voucher, because applicants often had outdated information on file. CHA says it also provided applicants during the update with an opportunity to select where in the city they prefer to live as well as provide new information that would help the agency connect them with housing that best matches their individual needs.

Rod Wilson, director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, called the wait list purge “unacceptable”, and noted that the underlying causes of people being removed from the list are stalled redevelopment initiatives and persistent vacancies. It’s “a visible symptom of the negative impact the demolition and privatization model, which the 2014 MTW Plan will continue to employ, is having on thousands of families and individuals in Chicago,” he added.

On top of the wait list issue, the plan calls for only 40 public housing units in mixed-income redevelopments set to be constructed in 2014. Activists say that’s the lowest level of planned rebuilding in the history of CHA's billon-dollar Plan for Transformation, which began in 2000 with the goal of having 25,000 rehabbed or new replacement units. The plan was originally scheduled to be completed by 2010, but it was extended through the close of 2015.

At the hearing Wednesday, CHA officials said the MTW plan calls for an additional 220 housing units to be delivered in 2014 through the Real Estate Acquisition Program, the way in which CHA buys and receives units from residential building sellers.

Additionally, 302 new project-based voucher units in Chicago will be delivered through the Property Rental Assistance Program, which offers payment contracts to property owners for multiple units.

After these 562 housing units are brought online, CHA expects to have 89 percent, or 22,287 units, of the Plan for Transformation’s 25,000-unit target completed by the end of 2014.

Even so, Wilson said CHA is still dragging its feet on living up to various promises.

“CHA said they would be finished with their Plan for Transformation by 2010 and 25,000 replacement units would be built, and it’s 2013, and they have not done that,” he said.

According to the Chicago Housing Initiative, only 2,580 replacement units have been delivered through new construction over the past 13 years of the Plan for Transformation. The low-income housing coalitions says 74 percent of CHA's total replacement units thus far have been brought back via rehabilitation, compared to 12 percent from new construction.

Wilson cited numerous examples of Chicago public housing buildings that have been demolished, but not replaced with newly-constructed units as CHA promised.

For instance, Wilson said CHA promised 300 new replacement units would be created from the now-demolished Harold Ickes Homes on the Near South Side, which saw its last families move out in 2010.

“They haven’t built one unit of public housing yet, and it’s 2013,” he stressed.

Natalie Saffold, a previous 23-year tenant of the LeClaire Courts public housing development, which was torn down in 2011, moved out of her building in 2009. At that time, CHA said it planned to erect a mixed-income development at the site and promised 300 affordable replacement units would be built, Saffold said.

“Now three years after we were all moved out, nothing has been rebuilt there. It’s just vacant land,” she said. “Today, when CHA talks about 2014, there’s still no rebuilding at LeClaire nor any plan of what will happen to the land where LeClaire used to be.”

The group wants CHA to stop demolishing public housing and selling off public land and instead put its focus on preserving more of the existing housing stock through rehabilitation. Among other demands, the housing activists also called on CHA to start circulating or leasing at least 95 percent of the housing vouchers it receives federal funding for, as opposed to 74 percent proposed in its 2014 plan.

“These measures are necessary to ensure the agency delivers on its public charge, to provide low-rent housing options to low-income Chicagoans, not sabotage and withhold the housing resources they are given by the public to steward,” said Titus Kerby, vice president of the Lathrop Homes public housing project on the near North Side.

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