WBEZ 91.5: CHA slows down on mixed-income housing

By Natalie Moore, WBEZ Reporter

The Chicago Housing Authority plans to deliver 562 public housing units in fiscal year 2014, but none of them will be on mixed-income sites.

In 1999, as part of the mammoth $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, the CHA promised to rehabilitate or redevelop 25,000 units for public housing families. The notorious high rises came down and mixed-income housing became the agency’s showpiece. Residents were promised the right to return to their old neighborhoods if they met qualifications.

The apartments for 2014 include artist housing and real estate acquisition in neighborhoods throughout the city as a way to deconcentrate segregation and subsidize vouchers.

“It really represents, I think, a broadening effort to include off-site units as well as continuing our work on the traditional family development sites,” said Ellen Sahli, chief housing officer for CHA.

Every year, the CHA must send its annual plan, known as Moving to Work, to the federal housing authority. Many public housing residents and activists question what CHA’s outlined in the document. The public comment period ends Sept. 27.

“The main issue is that the housing authority is not making significant progress on providing the replacement units that they promised. They’re committed to producing 25,000 replacement units, theoretically, by 2015. At the rate they’re going, they’re going to have to request an extension to the plan for transformation until at least 2020,” said Leah Levinger, of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

Originally, the Plan for Transformation was a five-year plan. Today, it’s supposed to be completed by 2015. That would mean the CHA would have to deliver a whopping 7,000 units by then.

When asked repeatedly about the timeline, Sahli fell back on boilerplate language about the CHA “continuing to work to aggressively deliver units.” She would not address whether an extension would be required, or if the CHA could produce by 2015.

In April, the CHA unveiled “Plan Forward,” nicknamed Plan for Transformation 2.0, which focuses on acquiring homes in neighborhoods across the city for rehab, boosting economic activity around CHA sites and providing job/educational training for people with subsidized housing vouchers in the city.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said the CHA could use project-based vouchers toward its 25,000 housing goal. Project-based vouchers is a rental assistance for eligible families to live in specific housing developments or units. Often, the landlord has a contract for a property than can go up to 30 years.

“We’re hoping the housing authority will report on the terms,” Levinger said. “This is not permanent affordability. It’s not even necessarily long-term affordability. The challenge for us is if we’re talking about a sustainable affordable housing system in Chicago, physical replacement units is what gets us to long-term affordability.”

Dearborn Homes, Trumbull and Lowden are among South Side properties that have been rehabbed. Levinger said if that model, instead of demolition and privatization was pursued, more families could have affordable housing.

“The issue is that they refuse to consider rehabilitation in North Side communities where we’re talking about housing developments on prime real estate,” Levinger said, referring to Lathrop Homes and Cabrini rowhouses.

Public housing resident activist Francine Washington said the CHA needs to consider more development besides retail on its empty tracts of land near mixed-income properties. The economic downturn has slowed down mixed-income activity and changed some for-sale housing into rentals.

“When you move into these new communities, the reason why they’re renting is no one is buying and there’s nowhere for our kids to go. You tell them they can’t hang in front of the door, they’re loitering. The apartments are sanctuaries inside, concrete reservations outside. Kids need somewhere to go instead of standing outside and the police can accost,” Washington said.

Washington said community centers need to be on the table.