Week in Review: more change and challenges at CHA

Week in Review: more change and challenges at CHA

Lots of news about the Chicago Housing Authority hit The Chicago Reporter's Muckrakers blog this week. Much is at stake for the city's public housing system as it deals with a spate of controversies and challenges, and embarks on yet another round of staff changes.

On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Charles Woodyard will take the reigns as chief executive officer of CHA, leaving his post at the Charlotte Housing Authority to come to Chicago.

Woodyard, head of the Charlotte authority since 2002, called himself a "community builder" in brief remarks Thursday:

Woodyard's installation at the top of CHA comes at a difficult moment for the housing agency.

CHA's Plan for Transformation is stalled, hurt by the sagging residential real estate market. Empty lots and vacant land are scattered around public housing redevelopment sites, the mixed-income communities meant to rise on them unbuilt and incomplete.

Neither the mayor nor Woodyard said anything specific about how they will restart the delayed redevelopment effort, remarking only that the philanthropic community will play a role in helping policymakers come up with ideas on how to do so. Emanuel said yesterday the MacArthur Foundation will host CHA leaders and officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs at an upcoming planning session to chart out "stage two" of the plan.

Meanwhile, housing organizers led by a group called the Chicago Housing Initiative criticized CHA this week for leaving public housing units empty and unused even as thousands of Chicagoans sit on CHA's waiting list and hope for the chance to lease a unit from the agency.

The group's analysis of CHA's 2011 budget estimates that, for example, in the CHA family housing portfolio 61.8 percent occupancy, far lower than the more than 98 percent occupancy the agency says it has achieved in family housing.

CHA does not count empty units it has designated as "offline" when calculating its occupancy rate, explaining the wide variation between the rates. Here's the agency's explanation of its offline policy:

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.

At the Lathrop Homes, on the city's North Side, the offline policy is easy to see--hundreds of units north of West Diversey Avenue are empty, waiting their fate. The agency got that ball rolling at Lathrop this week, when its board approved a team of for-profit and nonprofit developers to remake the community.

Much is up for grabs at the site. A key issue, we reported this week on the Muckrakers blog, during upcoming planning sessions will be whether or not the revamped Lathrop will include market-rate units or not.

The housing agency is moving away from keeping the Cabrini-Green Rowhouses, a CHA development located near the river and West Chicago Avenue, as traditional public housing.

The Reporter's Megan Cottrell was in federal court to follow the story. From her report:

After a year of saying they weren't sure what would happen, the CHA finally revealed its plan in federal court last week: The rowhouses won't be 100 percent public housing, and they might not be rehabbed either.

"CHA's position at this time is that it will not support 100 percent public housing at the Cabrini Green rowhouses," said Scott Ammarell, head counsel for the housing authority, in front of Judge Marvin Aspen last week.

Residents and advocates are pushing back, fighting to keep the row houses in tact as public housing.

"The Legal Assistance Foundation submitted a letter on behalf of resident leadership to CHA, asking that the rowhouses remain 100 percent public housing and be rehabbed," Cottrell wrote. "They cited several reasons--including the fact that rehab is more cost effective and would keep public housing on the Near North Side, an area that has little public housing and few Section 8 residents."

In other news, we spent some time this week on the Muckraker's blog reporting on the U.S. Census Bureau's recent poverty report.

"Deep poverty," defined as when a household lives on less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level, is on the rise. More than 44 percent of the nation's poor now fall into this category. The Associated Press, meanwhile, put together a great snapshot of some of the Americans struggling to get by on less and less; Cottrell called it "moving, poignantly written and courageous."

In other posts this week, I wrote about how cash flow problems continue to pressure social service providers hired by the State of Illinois and reviewed the issue of juvenile expungements in Illinois.

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© Community Renewal Society 2011

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