Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Are CHA changes common sense or attack on poor?

By Mark Brown, Columnist

In the Chicago Housing Authority of the near future, rents will no longer vary along with a family’s income, and limits may be placed on time spent living in public housing — all part of a strategy to move tenants “up and out.”

For most Chicago residents, those may sound like simple common sense policies. After all, nobody should aspire to spend a lifetime in public housing.

But to many public housing tenants and those who advocate on their behalf, these are more troubling signs of a city that is increasingly hostile to the poor. They don’t see the need for such low-cost affordable housing ending any time soon.

On Tuesday, CHA commissioners gave their formal endorsement to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Plan Forward”— his administration’s take on former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Plan for Transformation” that wiped out vast swaths of CHA developments.

The Plan Forward commits to finish what Daley started but is short of specifics on how the CHA will produce the promised replacement housing, obviously tied to the fact that the agency is short of money to do the work.

Under Emanuel’s plan, the CHA will continue to focus on replacing traditional public housing with mixed income communities.

But in addition to new housing built and owned by private developers, the agency will for the first time place a major emphasis on acquiring and rehabbing existing apartment buildings.

CHA chief executive officer Charles Woodyard said the emphasis on rehabs will be necessary for the agency to fulfill its goal of providing 25,000 replacement units of housing by 2015.

Housing advocates, however, note that when you cut through the CHA’s fuzzy math, less than half of the promised replacement units have been built and that no significant construction is in the pipeline.

They argue CHA could best serve the need for public housing by preserving the developments that have so far been spared the wrecking ball, such as Lathrop Homes and the Cabrini-Green row houses.

“The model of demolition of public housing, followed by privatization is not a model that has worked,” said Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

Levinger is also among those raising a red flag about hints of major policy changes in the Plan Forward, most prominently the possibility of “term limits” for public housing residents.

The plan merely mentions that the CHA intends to develop a “pilot program for a time-limited subsidy program to help move families toward self-sufficiency and to transition off of subsidy.”

Woodyard said this voluntary program will be aimed at a “small portion of families already in our portfolio whose income greatly exceeds the maximum income of 30 percent AMI [area median income.]” It would also be applied to some homeless families.

Woodyard said families could choose to receive the subsidy for a limited time in exchange for supportive services and other incentives.

The pilot program should not be interpreted as the CHA adopting “term limits as a broad-based strategy,” Woodyard said, but suggested it could lead to that.

“Term limits are not a part of the Plan, but I can say quite frankly that it is possible that term limits will be a policy decision that the board will have fairly soon,” he said.

CHA Chairwoman Z. Scott said term limits are among the options being discussed.

“We’re looking for a way to keep people moving to self-sufficiency,” she said.

Such a policy presumes an opportunity for upward economic mobility that does not exist for many people stuck in minimum wage jobs, counters Levinger.

While a broad-based term limit strategy that would spare seniors and disabled persons is still a ways off, the CHA is committing to another controversial policy shift to do away with setting rent on a sliding scale tied to tenants’ income.

Traditionally, a family was expected to pay 30 percent of its combined income in rent, with recertification monthly. Woodyard said the old policy resulted in tenants facing rent increases when their income increased, which he said proved a “disincentive for families to move toward self-sufficiency.”

The CHA will develop a new stable or flat rent structure, he said.

That could make some sense, say the advocates, but they question how high the initial rents will be set. They also want to know what will happen when a family’s income goes down — a more likely scenario in the current economy.

It’s hard to argue with the concept of trying to move public housing residents to self-sufficiency, but it won’t be as easy as it was to tear down the places they live.