CN Aug 7, 2014

 

Who knew that in these austere times, our public housing authority was the most cash-flush agency around? No deficits here – they’e sitting on more than $350 million in reserves.  How’d they do it? By not issuing all the rental vouchers the feds were giving them money for.

The Tribune’s Lolly Bowean tells us about that audit the Center for Budget and Tax accountability released last week.

“The CHA had $432 million dollars kind of tucked away in a reserve fund. Liquid dollars in cash on hand that many in the public didn’t know about, didn’t understand how their budgets operate, or how an agency can be this cash rich,” she tells us.

“In their most recent figures CHA said they manage about 40,000 housing choice vouchers,” Bowean says. “These are federally funded certificates that subsidize rent in the private market for low income residents. So residents pay about thirty percent of their income, and the rest is covered voucher. The voucher does limit the amount of money that they can use in the private market to rent an apartment or house.”

But here’s the problem. The CHA had enough money to pay out at least 13,000 more vouchers than it did, despite the crushing need for housing financial assistance. The CHA simply elected not to do so. But nobody’s exactly sure why.

At the same time, Lathrop Homes on the northwest side sits almost empty, mot of its 900 units idle, as the CHA tries to decide what to do with the development. And, as Bowean explains, the CHA is tied to a federal process from a long time ago.

“There was a formula that was developed because the thinking at the time, fifteen years ago, was that concentrating poor people all in one housing development or in one community just didn’t work,” she explains. “Because not only did it limit the opportunities that they had access to, but some of those communities became centers of violence and crime. So the Plan for Transformation was san effort to break up those pockets of poverty and spread people out to “opportunity communities” where they could have access to better schools, that they could see people getting up and going to work every day and they could be integrated into a larger community.”

And that formula called for an equal division of public housing, subsidized housing and outright market-rate units. But, she says,  the Lathrop area is unique in that it already had that going for it.

“But unfortunately,” she says, “When it comes to government there’s a kind of standard formula. There’s not as much room for humanity and human decision as some of the residents and activists in the community would like.”

So the CHA has been in a kind of stasis. Not rehabbing Lathrop and other similar developments has held critically-needed units from the market and put more pressure on the voucher system. And meanwhile those who do get vouchers are often in a Catch-22. They don’t really get to enjoy those “Opportunity communities”. As Bowean puts it, “Eleven hundred dollars for a three-bedroom unit in Chicago – what neighborhoods will that take you to?”

 

So Chicago had a baby on Monday. A little corporate bundle of joy called CPUB, or Tribune Publishing. A baby born into corporate poverty, and a baby whose mommy corporation basically wrapped little TPUB up in old newspapers and left it on our doorstep.

Lynn Marek of Crain’s explains that CPUB came into the world owing $350 million.

“Coming out of bankruptcy, you had private equity firms and hedge funds owning the Tribune Company,” she explains. “And these are companies that typically have an exit plan where they make more than what they invested. So, coming out of bankruptcy, these folks immediately started asking – where is it that we’re gonna make the most money and the highest profits with this particular company?”

And guess what? The money folks figured out that newspapers weren’t the things the Tribune owned that were going to be money-makers in years to come. So they built a new corporation, Tribune Media, and that entity got to keep all the valuable stuff.

“So you had some of these more valuable assets stay with the broadcast operation,” Marek explains, “and the eight newspapers and a handful of local niche publications and some digital news services are off on their own at this point. So it’s kind of sink or swim time for the newspapers.”

So how does this happen? How can the 150-plus-year-old Chicago Tribune get treated like yesterday’s news? Well, says Marek, “Tribune Media, the former parent, gets to kind of set the rules as to what the spinoff looks like. And the parent company decided you are going to pay us a dividend of $275 million. So Tribune Publishing knew it was going to have to pay that as part of the spinoff.” (And they borrowed an extra $50 million just to have some cash on hand.)

So, as Marek tells us, the money folk want  their payback. “They’ve been sitting with it, some of them, for four years patiently awaiting the end of the bankruptcy. And now it’s time to cash out,” she says.

Jack Griffin, the new publishing CEO, has a plan.  “But it’s a vision that so many newspaper companies have had for about the past ten years – this whole, ‘we’re gonna shift to digital and we’re gonna find new ways to make money.’ But that’s a holy grail that so far has been a little out of reach for your average metropolitan newspaper,”says Marek.

And there’s one more thing to consider. Jack Griffin used to work at a magazine publishing company. And, says Marek, “He really found a way to delve into something called content marketing, where you take the newspaper’s storytelling expertise, and you don’t have the journalists get into writing it, but you do have another staff at the newspaper help advertisers create these campaigns.”

Could we see a lot more sponsored content at the new Tribune?

 

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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