CN December 11, 2014


There was a stark manifestation of the growing divide between haves and have-nots in Chicago recently when the CHA revealed the numbers of people who’d applied for its most-recent round of wait-list applications.

“There were 282,000 or so households who signed up for the CHA’s wait lists,” the Chicago Reporter’s Jonah Newman tells us, referring to the lists for both physical CHA housing units and so-called Housing Choice Vouchers.

“And that’s more than a quarter of all the households in Chicago.”

Did you get that? A number equivalent to more than a quarter of Chicago’s roughly one million households applied for housing in CHA’s approximately 18,000 available units, all  of which are currently occupied, or for vouchers.

“But what might be more shocking is that about forty percent of the households in the City meet the income requirements for Chicago Public housing,” he continues.  “So actually the number of people who signed up for the wait list is quite a bit below the number of households who could have signed up. This is despite the fact that we know the average time for someone waiting on the wait list is about 3-1/2 years – 41 months. Most of the people who do sign up for the wait lists probably aren’t going to get housing any time in the near future.”

So who are these people who applied?

Many are homeless. But homeless doesn’t necessarily mean living on the streets.

In this week’s WBEZ series on homelessness Linda Paul, who’s a Chicago Newsroom producer, presented a series of four reports on people who panhandle on Chicago expressway ramps, and Susie An profiled a family living for years in a shelter. But there’s a different group of homeless people who don’t show up in the City’shomeless counts.

“There are so many people who are living very layered,” explains the Tribune’s Lolly Bowean. “They’re living multi-family in one household. They see this as the opportunity to finally apply to get independent housing that they could  afford.”

Since the implementation of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, most of Chicago’s high-rise developments have been torn down, but replacements have been slow in coming.

“It’s fair to say that the CHA began with over a hundred thousand hard units, and is now down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 occupiable units,” Newman points out. But even of those, “about 2,000 are sitting empty.”

Author, journalist and founder of We the People Media Ethan Michaeli laments the radical downsizing of the CHA as a landlord and its now-dominant role as the distributor of vouchers.

“Public housing was a resource that was being provided to people and it had an effect that radiated throughout the entire economy,” he explains. “We’ve removed public housing as part of the mix.  Part of the maligning of the reputation of public housing was a pretext to demolishing public housing and really reducing the overall number of units. Chicago is, I think, a perfect exemplar of what we’ve done throughout the country. Now, public housing is gone, the problem remains. What are we going to do about it?

And author and WBEZ south Side Bureau reporter Natalie Moore raises a significant social issue. “The problem with the voucher program is that it’s ended up concentrating families in poorer, segregated neighborhoods,” she tells us.

“There really isn’t any political will” to improve the situation, she continues. She refers to a story she did months ago about the CHA’s “super-voucher” program, which experimented with paying higher-than normal rent subsidies to allow some former CHA families to live in well-appointed high-rises at the  lakefront.

“When Chicago knocked down these high-rises we said that we wanted to de-segregate these pockets of poverty, that we did not want to keep people in places where only poor people were living under the same conditions,” says Bowean.” So the ‘super-voucher’ as a so-called program, does allow a very small  number of families to move into neighborhoods where there could be a possibility of better schools, of better jobs, of better outcomes.”

But when stories began emerging about the low-income families being paid with taxpayer dollars to live in luxury buildings, Congressman Aaron Schock launched an investigation. “Then there was this sort of kick-back, and the program was adjusted almost immediately,” she adds.

To Natalie Moore, it was a reminder of the kind of influence – negative and positive – politicians have on CHA policy. “There are so many things to call the CHA on the carpet for, and that is the one thing CHA completely reversed. It made me think, if this plan for transformation is gonna get done, if this reserve’s gonna get spent…nothing’s gonna change with CHA on any of these issues until some politicians with heavy weight come in and say change it.”

Well, didn’t that sort of happen when the Mayor and his new CHA chief, Michael Merchant, opened the wait lists for the first time in years and announced that they would increase the number of available vouchers?

“I do consider the opening of the waiting lists as something that has very suspicious timing,” says Michaeli. “After years of inaction under Mayor Emanuel, suddenly the housing authority is doing something that has the appearance of providing resources to people who need it – several months before the election. And, I’m sorry, it does not wash for me as something that is a sincere effort or something that makes up for the years of inaction under this administration.”

“There’s been a lot of changes in  the last 12 years since the Plan for Transformation was implemented,” asserts Bowean. “This was a long-term plan that didn’t take into consideration the fact that the market may change, the political climate may change, and there’s been a lot of factors that have influenced the way the CHA operates. Yet they’ve stuck with this plan. As a result, we see an agency that, on paper, when you look at their budget and their financials, it can look robust…but then when you look at the number of people being served, that need to be served, and that are not being served, then there’s concern.”

Both Michaeli and Bowean tell us that there have been so many changes at the top at CHA in recent years, and there is such turmoil at the staff level, that it can be difficult to get even the most routine work done.

An important reason why those 2,000 or so units remain unoccupied is that they’re caught up in a policy dispute about  the CHA’s insistence on redeveloping its properties in a roughly  1/3 CHA, 1/3 subsidized housing, 1/3 market-rate matrix. Moore and Michaeli say it isn’t working.

I think there as this idea that, oh, I’m poor and my market-rate neighbor’s  gonna get me a job”, Moore says.” There has to be a serious discussion about how to integrate these neighborhoods with income or with race…because the same neighborhoods have the same issues, and now you’re putting more voucher-holders into those neighborhoods.”

“The whole idea was predicated on exposing residents to other classes to kind of help them improve their lifestyle, as if poverty was a self-imposed condition that wasn’t the result of an absence of resources and support. It was never going to work. Im not even sure the people who proposed it thought that it was going to work,” Michaeli concludes.



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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