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Housing initiative pushes CHA

Thu, Aug 2, 2012

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has a difficult balancing act.

Founded in 1937, the CHA is an enduring progressive legacy – a public agency that is devoted exclusively to helping those in need.

However, it is also a practical bureaucracy that commonly checks its high hopes at the door in the face of harsh realities – from mounting social pressures to impending budget cuts.

Even as the CHA remains trapped in this identity crisis, watching its liberal roots battle its pragmatic business sense, its officials work tirelessly to placate both sides.

In the 1960s, the CHA ordered the construction of high-density, high-rise buildings, such as the Robert Taylor Homes and the Cabrini Green development, in predominantly black neighborhoods.

The result was a successful compromise between liberal activists who demanded increased housing for African Americans and cautious politicians who feared integration would provoke a backlash from the city’s white residents.

In the late 1990s, the CHA (right after it reassumed control from HUD) ordered the construction of smaller public housing units in the city’s North and West Sides to replace the dilapidated high-rises of the ’60s.
Again, the CHA waited until it received backing from its two key constituencies: the left that wanted safe, modern housing options and the fiscal hawks in city management who asked for private financing to supplement city funding.

Recently, the CHA has come under fire from progressive activists who lament that the agency has cozied up with private backers after economic troubles crippled the city’s already meager public housing budget.
Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a grassroots organization that helps the homeless find available public housing, criticizes the CHA for an “endless list of longstanding vacancies.”

She cites Lathrop Homes, a public housing development at Diversey and Clybourn, as an example of the many “communities that have been in limbo for over a decade” due to the CHA’s failure to put families in ready-to-move-in units.

In 2000, the CHA stopped leasing units at Lathrop. Officials said not to worry – they’d resume leasing in a year after much-needed structural repairs were made, they promised.

But to this day, no progress has been made. In 2011, only 170 units were occupied; 750 were still vacant.
Levinger faults bureaucratic inertia as well as deregulatory programs that “limit transparency and the financial incentive to fill vacancies,” she said.

Levinger noted that the primary deregulatory program, Moving to Work, was intended to be “a pilot program.” However, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to expand the program “with the ultimate goal of making [it] permanent,” she explained. The bill remains stalled in the Senate but could pass next year, depending on which party has control.

Although Levinger expressed concern over the CHA’s recent initiatives, she said that her “goal is not to malign the CHA; “[it is] to house people.” For those who are in need of housing and are currently not on a waiting list, the Chicago Housing Initiative is looking for you. The CHI’s number is 773-292-4980.

CHA did not respond to a request for comment on this story. However, last October CHA Spokesperson Kellie O’Connell-Miller said Lathrop residents were being moved to facilitate a planning process that would begin in 2012 and be funded in 2013.

Sam Rothbloom, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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