The Chicago Reporter: CHA wait list exposes Chicago’s affordable housing crisis

By Jonah Newman

More than a quarter of Chicago households–more than 282,000–recently turned to the Chicago Housing Authority in their search for a better or more affordable home.

The households are vying for an apartment in public housing or a housing voucher, either of which could be a step up from their current living situations. But the huge response to the four-week registration period for the agency’s wait lists also exposes a glaring need for quality, affordable housing in Chicago.

The registration period, which ended Nov. 24, is the first time CHA has opened its public housing wait list since 2010 and its voucher wait list since 2008. The wait lists, for the first time, used a single online application.

Chicago Housing Authority CEO Michael Merchant touted the high registration number at this month’s Board of Commissioners meeting as proof that the agency’s outreach efforts had been successful.

“We all know the need for affordable housing is great and this demonstrates that,” said Katie Ludwig, CHA’s Deputy Chief Housing Officer for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, who was pleased with the number of people who signed up for the wait list. “We hope to serve as many of those people as possible in the coming years. We can’t do that alone, and we need to be partnering with other organizations system-wide,” she said.

Unfortunately, few households that applied are likely to receive public housing or a voucher anytime soon. That’s because demand far outweighs supply.

• In 2013, CHA added just 95 new public housing units last year and just over 200 new project-based voucher units.
• CHA planned to add about 2,500 new Housing Choice vouchers in 2014, for a total of 40,500.
• When the voucher wait list was last opened in 2008, more than 232,000 people applied for just 40,000 spots. CHA hasn’t yet announced how many spots will be available on this year’s wait lists.
• Only about 2,000 households were housed from the wait list in 2013.
• On average, families waited almost three-and-a-half years on the family public housing wait list before receiving housing. In a recent report, CHA estimates that the wait time will stay the same in 2015.

Even those households lucky enough to get one of the coveted spots on the wait list could find themselves out of luck further down the road.

Every few years, CHA updates the wait lists, usually by removing thousands of households.

For example, from December 2012 through February 2013, CHA purged their wait lists by more than half. Applicants on the public housing and Housing Choice Voucher wait lists were first contacted via phone, mail and email. Of nearly 90,000 households on the wait lists, almost 48,000 were removed because they didn’t respond to CHA’s outreach efforts.

Another 8,000 applicants were removed from the wait lists in 2013 because they were contacted for screening but either didn’t respond or didn’t qualify.

An analysis by The Chicago Reporter in 2012 found that CHA was cashing federal rent checks worth millions for empty apartments while a record number of families sat on a wait list hoping for a unit to open up. At the end of 2013, the CHA had $661 million in unrestricted assets, a review of audited financial reports by the Reporter found.

What does it mean that almost a quarter of Chicago households signed up with CHA?

“That’s an astounding number,” said Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These numbers suggest that as a matter of policy we need to be paying more attention to the issue of quality affordable housing.”

The question, she said, is whether CHA has the capacity to meet that demand.

Nearly 15 percent of CHA’s 21,251 public housing units are currently “offline,” meaning they are not being leased out. Most are awaiting redevelopment plans, which usually include far fewer public housing units as part of mixed-income developments.

“We shouldn’t abandon the public [housing] sector,” Córdova said.

Leah Levinger, Director of the Chicago Housing Initiative and an affordable housing activist said the number doesn’t surprise her, but that it highlights CHA’s underutilization of resources at its disposal.

“There’s just no excuse for underuse when the need is clearly so great,” Levinger said. “People are desperate for help and hoping to get a place in line, which is the best they can really ask for at this stage.”