Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday November 6th, 2015, 3:48pm

'Political Will' Missing In Improving Chicago's Public Housing, Thought Leaders Say

There is a lack of "political will" to improve the state of public housing in Chicago, participants at a roundtable discussion on the "future of public housing" argued Friday morning.

At the discussion, attended by a few dozen thought leaders in the nonprofit, academic, community development and affordable housing arenas, Breann Gala with the Metropolitan Planning Council pointed to the sluggish pace of Chicago's Plan for Transformation -- a huge undertaking launched in 2000 to relocate public housing residents to mixed-income housing units.

"There was momentum under [former Chicago Mayor Richard M.] Daley, for better or worse, whether people liked it or not, there was something happening," she said. "And I feel like now ... we're just kind of stalled in this conversation."

Gala said the city needs to step up its public housing efforts.

Ethan Michaeli, founder of Residents' Journal, a publication written for and by Chicago public housing residents, followed up on Gala's comments. He said "promises have not been kept" as it relates to the more than 15-year-old Plan for Transformation.

"Housing is not getting built, with the exception of a few mixed-income communities," he said. "I'll argue right now that this is exactly where the city wants us to be ... A majority of the city, I think, believes these are people that don't deserve our help, and we would therefore not help them. And I think that's where things stand. I'm, of course, deeply opposed to that idea. I think that that's criminal. I think it's against human rights, but I think that's where the majority of people are. I think the political will is exactly that situation." 

The roundtable discussion, also attended by housing advocates from New York City, was co-sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum, the Institute for Public Architecture, Center for Urban Pedagogy and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, where the event was held. The discussion was presented in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  

Salvador Munoz with the Latin United Community Housing Association, based in Chicago's Humboldt Park community, spoke to one issue impacting the group's push for more affordable housing in the city.

He said many low-income Humboldt Park residents are leaving the community for cheaper options in the suburbs. As such, his organization has "lost the base" of people who could influence aldermen to take greater action on public and affordable housing efforts.

Micere Keels, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, whose research focuses on issues of race, poverty, and inequality, provided a different take on how to gin up the needed "political will" on housing issues. She suggested that advocates focus their message on how public housing benefits the community as a whole, not just individuals in need of such assistance.

"Making the economic argument for why it's beneficial for society may get a lot more traction than the benefits of it for residents," she said. 

Among other topics, the roundtable participants addressed the issue of public housing financing and the need to find alternative funding sources for such initiatives. 

The topic was prompted by an earlier presentation from Rasmia Kirmani-Frye with the New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) office of public/private partnerships. 

Kirmani-Frye detailed the financial woes of the NYCHA, which provides housing for 1 in 12 New Yorkers. The NYCHA has lost $1 billion in operating funding since 2001 and has less than one month worth of operating reserves, Kirmani-Frye said.

As part of the De Blasio Administration's recently-released NextGeneration NYCHA (NextGen) 10-year plan to tackle NYCHA's financial problems, the housing agency is developing an innovative "Fund for Public Housing."

The goal of the fund is to raise "$200 million over three years in philanthropic dollars to support linking NYCHA residents to third-party service providers to improve social service delivery and access to economic opportunity for residents," according to the NYCHA.

But some at the table questioned whether that fundraising approach would work.

"How do you raise money without taking philanthropic dollars away from the support services that are already out there?" Michaeli asked. "If you did that in Chicago, given that there's a finite amount of philanthropic dollars, that's exactly what you'd be doing."

Kirmani-Frye, who noted that the fund is still in development, said there are potential donors to tap outside of the philanthropic community. Specifically, she said the fund plans to reach out to "high-net-worth individuals who grew up in public housing who have had no reason to connect back to public housing."

"That's a different (potential funding source), and not just for financial support but also for story telling and narratives and changing the conversation about public housing," she said.

Michaeli was skeptical.

"That's not my experience with how philanthropic dollars are raised, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it works," he said. "I sincerely, sincerely hope that you're successful and that you will create the new model that you're talking about."

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