Thousands of public housing units sit vacant, group claims, while homelessness rises

Thousands of public housing units sit vacant, group claims, while homelessness rises

Why would you take an old building, rehab it until it shines and then let it sit empty with no families living there? That's exactly the question the Chicago Housing Initiative is bringing to public housing officials this morning. Its research indicates that thousands of public housing units are sitting vacant, many perfectly habitable, while tens of thousands of families are sitting on Chicago Housing Authority waiting lists.

The news comes at the same time that the housing agency received a big pat on the back from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because it occupancy rates are so high. Confused? Let's review the two sides.

One example the activists gave was the North Lawndale scattered-site units. Rehab on those units was completed in 2005. But buildings like 3605 W. Douglas Blvd. sit empty. They've been that way for six years. Nearby, reports the Chicago Housing Initiative, another scattered-site building has been empty for almost a year, waiting for new tenants.

The Chicago Housing Initiative's Leah Levinger noted an interesting statistic in CHA's annual plan. While it claims to have delivered 21,310 units toward its goal of 25,000 units, it also says only 17,979 of those units are inhabitable. But nowhere is there an indication that the uninhabitable units aren't being counted toward the big goal. The Chicago Housing Initiative says it suspects they are, meaning CHA is meeting its goals by counting units no one can live in.

Their report shows a number of developments--Lake Park Place, Lathrop Homes, the Cabrini Rowhouses--where occupancy rates have been decreasing over the years. While the housing authority has been promising to rehab Lathrop and the rowhouses for some time, recently reneging on its promise at the rowhouses, Lake Parc Place was rehabbed years ago. The Chicago Housing Initiative says that more than 150 units at Lake Parc Place sit totally empty. While public housing officials claim that 56 of those are undergoing rehabilitation for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, that leaves us to wonder about the rest. With 68,000 people on its waiting list?

Levinger also found that CHA isn't being upfront about how long it takes to get habitable units leased up. Two weeks ago on our radio show, we had Jadine Chou, who's the director of asset management for the housing agency. She claimed there were plenty of habitable units ready for families to live in.

"We would much rather have lease-compliant families who we can find housing for because we have units across the city in our brand-new rehabbed public housing portfolio which I oversee, and those units were ready and waiting for them," Chou said.

The units do seem "ready and waiting," as CHA said in its 2008 plan that the average time to lease up a unit was 453 days--almost a year and three months. While that seems like something it would want to work on, seeing as its stated goal was to have units leased within 30 days, that same statistic wasn't given in the most recent reports. And when Levinger asked CHA for any documents it had, related to how long it's taking these days, it said none existed. So, if it is trying to get from 453 to 30, no one seems to be working on it.

But yesterday, the housing agency put out a press release, saying its occupancy rates are at 98 percent and 99 percent for senior housing.

"The CHA has exceeded its goals and our expectations for which we are pleased," said Steve Meiss, director at Illinois Office of Public Housing at HUD. "The achievement of over 99 percent occupancy in its Senior Housing Portfolio is particularly impressive.”

CHA also said its occupancy rates were "among the strongest of any public housing agency in the nation."

And more housing will soon be available. CHA says nearly 300 units in mixed income housing, and another 300 units in public housing, will be ready to be leased soon.

So what about all the vacant units that the activists claim are sitting empty? CHA's occupancy rates had one caveat.

Throughout the Plan for Transformation units can be designated offline, and therefore not available to lease, for a variety of reasons, including redevelopment, various community planning processes, retrofits to meet ADA requirements and overall updates and improvements.

As is often the case during redevelopment, specific sites or properties are shut down, either for assessment, planning or building purposes. The residents who lived on the site are relocated to either another public housing property, or they are provided a Housing Choice Voucher that allows them to move to any neighborhood in the City of Chicago. Once it is time to make their final housing choice, those who relocated from the property have a Right of Return to the redeveloped property.

It won't be the only controversy at this morning's meeting. Members of Chicago's Anti-Eviction Campaign will also speak to the board about fraudulent evictions they say are occuring under one-strike--the rule that says public housing families can be evicted if anyone living in a unit is arrested, but not convicted, for a crime. The group is citing data from The Chicago Reporter's most recent investigation--"One and Done"--showing that most arrests are for misdemeanor crimes and don't involve the head of household.

Former Cabrini tenant Roberta Rendle will speak to the board about her own battle with one-strike. Rendle ended up winning her case, but she says, too often, she sees former neighbors who didn't and who she thinks were wrongly evicted.

"Even though I won my case, it still worries me a lot. How many people before me went through what I went through in terms of eviction and lost their apartments just because CHA wasn't doing its job?" she says.

So, what to do you think? Are these activists barking up the wrong tree? Or are they onto something? Tell us your thoughts.

UPDATE - 3:00 p.m.

Blogger Micah Maidenberg attended this morning's press conference and asked Chou about the discrepancies in the numbers of units occupied. Talking specifically of Lathrop Homes, where the meeting and press conference was held, she said the units that aren't occupied at the complex aren't considered vacant, but rather "offline."

"There are many units that are not habitable and also, given that we are at the eve of our planning process, it doesn't make sense to invest the resources required to make them habitable in order to move families in because only to have them temporarily move them out," Chou said.

Chou said she wasn't sure how many units were currently considered offline in the entire CHA portfolio but went on to explain reasons why units are considered offline.

"Other categories of offline units would include the nonrehabbed units at Cabrini rowhouses, for example. That's included in that tabulation," Chou said. "Other properties that have offline units include some of our scattered sites portfolio. That's also included in their calculation. The reason they are offline is because we are doing ADA retrofits, that's required to do meet our ADA requirements. So those are numbers where units are truly are unoccupied, but they're considered offline, and therefore we can't put families in them."

Chou said the trouble with the activists' calculation is that it includes units that CHA doesn't consider habitable.

"Their calculation considers a universe that includes all of those offline units, which we don't believe is an accurate portrayal of what the situation is," she said.

Photo credit: Ged Carroll

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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  • I don't understand what the "coalition" is contending here? Is it saying that the 700 vacant units at Lathrop are being counted as occupied?

    If so, I'd like to see some evidence of that contention.

  • "Its RESEARCH indicates that thousands of public housing units are sitting vacant, many perfectly habitable, while tens of thousands of families are sitting on Chicago Housing Authority waiting lists... The Chicago Housing Initiativesays it SUSPECTS they are, meaning CHA is meeting its goals by counting units no one can live in."

    The bar for the term "muckraker" has reached a new low. Does muckraker now mean serving as a mouthpiece for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. No review of the "research." No follow up on the claim that MTO "suspects," that the reports are inaccurate.

    What a joke.

  • Hi Testa - Thanks for commenting.

    The coalition is contending two things - that some units have been rehabbed but still aren't occupied, while others have sat empty for years, while CHA figures out what to do with them. Lathrop and the Cabrini rowhouses would be examples of the latter.

  • @Megan -- Those are two very different claims and it sounds like they are conflated in the MTO/Cottrell report.

    Are they saying that there are 3300 units along the lines of the Lake Parc vacancies or 3300 units along the lines of the Lathrop vacancies?

    Another possibility is that they are describing a handful of units along the lines of Lake Park, but adding the Lathrop and Cabrini vacancies to make the number seem large.

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    Sounds like the vacant units in question aren't counted as occupied (the numerator in the occupancy rate), but rather excluded from the tally altogether (the numerator AND denominator in the occupancy rate). And I thought the Cottrell was clear about distinguishing between vacant-rehabbed vs. vacant-neglected. To me a big question is: How many units are currently considered "offline"? And why? Thanks for introducing me to that new piece of CHA lingo.

    Also, I guess Lathrop is on the "eve" of the planning process now? Is an eve still an eve when it lasts a year? Or ten years? The CHA needs to get this show on the road NOW.

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