CN May 5 2016


A CHA voucher recipient lives in a high-rise with a lake view. The rent is about $3,000 a month. Another lives in Aqua Tower.  It’s great fodder for investigative news teams. To make matters worse, the CHA admits that fiscal efficiency isn’t the most important issue when selecting these tenants.

But there’s a story behind this story.

It was a brief, perhaps poorly-handled but well-intended effort to see if Chicago’s housing authority could pay a small part in helping impoverished, but highly qualified households to break through the color and poverty lines that so brutally define Chicago. In other words, it was a quiet experiment in integration.

Maya Dukmasova and Meribah Knight, working with Northwestern’s Social Justice News Network, authored this investigation for the Reader.

As of 2013, “more than 36,000 people in the city  have Section 8 vouchers,” explains Reader news Editor Robin Amer, also on this weeks show. “Those are all of the people who have any kind of voucher from CHA, and the vast majority of those voucher holders are living in highly segregated impoverished Southside and Westside neighborhoods.

“So, you have a voucher system that is reinforcing the patterns of segregation that have existed in Chicago for decades, and this “super voucher” program that we looked into in great detail was this tiny, tiny effort to get some small percentage of these voucher holders out of the poor segregated neighborhoods and into nicer integrated neighborhoods in the city. That was the program’s reason for being, and I think as we worked on the story that’s what we found so tragic about the program’s demise was that its intention was pro-integration, which is something I think if you kind of look at that goal on its face most people would say, ‘Oh yeah, integrated housing, that’s a worthy goal,’ a worthy aspiration.”

As most Chicagoans know, the CHA knocked down almost all of its high-rise buildings in the last decade or so, resulting in the loss of at least 25,000 dwelling units. Despite promises to rebuild them, only a fraction ever were. Instead, most former CHA tenants have been moved to the voucher program.

As Dukmasova and Amer point out, voucher payments are based on a median which takes into account the very highest and lowest rents in Chicago.

“So you have this difficult almost Catch 22 situation if you’re a voucher holder,” Amer continues, “where you don’t quite have enough money to get into a nice place in a nice neighborhood, but you are being taken advantage of potentially by landlords who own substandard housing in poor neighborhoods who are getting more from voucher holders than they would from the average tenant.”

In other words, the program has created a market for landlords who can get more from their sub-standard apartments in undesirable neighborhoods than they’d get outside of the voucher program.

Dukmasova says the CHA knew that, among its 36,000 clients, there were those who, despite their poverty, had clean arrest records, had never been evicted, and even had good credit.

“So this program was born out of this reality. Louis Jordan and his colleagues at the CHA at the time thought that it would be a good idea to give some flexibility to voucher families and essentially give, if a family was going to move to a high opportunity area where there were lots of jobs and good schools and lower crimes such as Near North, such as Lincoln Park that they would get more money for their voucher. That the voucher would be flexible to allow a family to move into a more expensive neighborhood.”

In the four years that the program operated, Dukmasova says 744 of the 36,000 voucher holders got the so-called super-vouchers. In most cases, the bump was a few percentage points – perhaps to 120 or 130% of their normal payment. Some were more than 150%, and a few – probably 22 -reached 300%. The total cost of the program was slightly more than $4 million in a more than $1 billion budget.

And this is where things get sticky. The voucher program is, above all else, supposed to be fiscally efficient. But the CHA’s small social experiment wasn’t. It wasn’t ever  intended to be. But  the constant churn in top management left the program orphaned, and difficult to explain.

“So at one point I think Crain’s had this expose that said, “HUD says the program isn’t cost-effective,” and everybody lost their minds a little bit as if that were proof that this program had somehow been corrupt or mismanaged or ill thought-out, and our reporting found that it was a much more complicated situation than that,” Amer tells us.

Then, as Amer explains, it got political.

“And then very soon after that Congressman Aaron Schock stood before congress and essentially pilloried the program and then shortly after that, that same summer of 2014 he requested that HUD do an audit of this program to determine whether it was in accordance with the CHA’s operational agreement with HUD.”

So the tiny experiment, dubbed “super-vouchers” by the press, was phased out. It was plagued by poor planning and execution, but along the way it helped a few families move into “opportunity areas” that were previously inaccessible to them. It got played in the press as wasted taxpayer money and became a political football.

But, as Dukmasova  points out, “There are landlords that get money from the CHA through the vouchers for units that fail inspections countless times during the year, sometimes up to like 18 times we saw in the records. And the (seven) landlords who had properties in the city that had the highest number of inspection violations throughout the year they collected over $4-million.” That’s about the same as the whole “super-voucher” program cost.

And since landlords in poor neighborhoods are often being paid more per unit than that apartment would fetch in the open market, there’s a premium that CHA pays every month for every one of those apartments. No one has ever crunched that number for Chicago, but with 30,000 apartments in the system, almost all of them in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods, the number is clearly substantial.

“And where,” asks Amer, “is the comparable outrage over that, right?”

You can read a full transcript of the discussion as a Word document HERE: CN transcript May 5 2016


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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