With ‘exclusive’ mayoral control, a new CHA chief may make little difference

With ‘exclusive’ mayoral control, a new CHA chief may make little difference

Natalie Saffold lived in LeClaire Courts for 23 years before the public housing complex was closed down in 2009. She raised three children there. Now 57, Saffold lives in a public housing apartment in Bridgeport. But she still hasn’t given up hope that she’ll one day move back to the area as part of the CHA’s promise to bring mixed-income housing units to the site of former public housing developments.

Saffold’s four years of waiting for replacement housing are about twice as long as Charles Woodyard was CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority before he announced his resignation Tuesday morning at a CHA board meeting. Woodyard was vague on the reasons for his departure according to news reports, citing family and professional development reasons for leaving the post.

Woodyard’s departure has brought some of the struggles of the Chicago Housing Authority to the fore – particularly the slow progress on the Plan for Transformation, the housing agency’s plan to replace public housing high rises with mixed-income developments while instituting tighter rules for tenants.

Less than 24 hours after Woodyard’s resignation, the nomination of a new CEO--Department of Buildings Commissioner Michael R. Merchant--was announced. Advocates and reporters who watch the housing agency closely wonder what, if anything, a new CEO could bring to the table. Especially given that the agency’s CEO and board are appointed by the mayor, they say.

“I think it’s pretty obvious … that the CEO takes the direction, and so does the board, from the mayor,” said Leah Levinger, coordinator of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a housing rights group. She points the finger at the fifth floor of City Hall, as to where CHA policy originates. And with deregulation leading to less federal oversight of the CHA, Levinger notes, the mayor’s control is “exclusive.”

Natalie Moore, South Side reporter for WBEZ, echoed the sentiment in a Twitter conversation:


The Plan for Transformation was started in 2000 under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley. More than 10 years later, the most ambitious public housing redevelopment project undertaken in the country has left thousands of public housing units unoccupied and an ever-growing waiting list for more housing, Levinger says. Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor, was on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority during the plan’s development.

A release announcing the new CEO’s nomination said Merchant’s “initial and primary responsibility” was to be the Plan for Transformation. “Mike is the best type of public servant,” said Emanuel in Wednesday’s release. “He is selfless and devoted, he is attentive to detail and ambitious in his thinking. I have been impressed with his leadership at the Department of Buildings.” The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on mayoral control of CHA appointments.

The Chicago Reporter has been investigating the Chicago Housing Authority for years. We’ve looked at public housing units left vacant despite the desperate need for affordable housing, and the CHA’s one-strike policy that sent tenants to eviction court if they were arrested even once.

Levinger says the future of public housing in Chicago lies in “how much Rahm Emanuel is willing to reshape his view.”

She would like to see a stop to the removal of public housing units on the North Side, like the Cabrini Row Homes near the former Cabrini Green high rises, a practice she contends only retrenches the concentration of poverty to other pockets of the city. And she wants to see filling the empty public housing units, which the Reporter previously reported on, with people in need of housing.

“Our hope would be that the mayor would use this opening to chart a new facet,” she says.

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