Housing activists on Wednesday, June 15 joined members of a citywide coalition and disrupted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s keynote address at a “Future of Chicago” Conference sponsored by Crain’s Chicago Business.
Demonstrators aimed to call attention to a housing crisis that affects thousands of low-income Blacks, who activists say are being displaced by gentrification in many Chicago neighborhoods..
While the City of Chicago grapples with a $426 million budget hole and a public school system on the verge of financial collapse, housing advocates say the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) sits on an unexplained cash surplus of over $430 million dollars, no debt, and an over-funded pension system. Meanwhile, 282,000 households—- representing one in every four Chicago families—- sought housing from the CHA when the Agency last opened its waiting list lottery around Thanksgiving-time in 2014.
One of the protesters, Liz Brake with Jane Addams Senior Caucus and Chicago Housing Initiative explains, “The Mayor is systematically failing to keep the Plan for Transformation’s promises to rebuild public housing after demolition, instead continuing to demolish, convert, and privatize the city’s remaining public housing. Unless the Mayor changes course, he will deepen the City’s affordable housing crisis, which is displacing people of color. Our loss of black and Latino families is why Chicago is losing population overall. It’s not sustainable or equitable.”
The demonstration came one week after CHA Chief Eugene “Gene” Jones Jr. gave a speech at the City Club of Chicago, where he outlined some recent achievements of the nation’s second largest housing agency. During his speech, Jones reaffirmed his goal of building more affordable housing as the solution to the city’s housing crisis. The CHA serves 64,000 families in public housing through the Housing Choice Voucher Program.
“By breaking new ground and through trial and error, over the last 16 years, CHA has strived to create new models of housing that provide individuals and families with the opportunity to live in communities that provide the education, jobs, recreation and social networks they seek,” Jones said.
In the four years before Mayor Emanuel took office, activists say the CHA delivered an average of 843 new public housing units each year, either through new construction or rehab. The year Emanuel took office, the number plunged to 424. In 2012, it dropped to 112, and in 2013 it fell again to 88, then 40 new units in 2014, according to the agency’s annual reports. Meanwhile, the CHA was stockpiling unspent cash.
Demonstrators called out the Mayor for blocking reforms sought over the past two years to improve fiscal accountability, housing delivery, and transparency at the Chicago Housing Authority, which covertly stockpiled the $430 million surplus while publishing misleading financial statements that made the Agency appear cash-strapped, as if it were operating at a sizable annual deficit.
Currently, 122,000 households languish on CHA’s waiting lists, 40% of whom are disabled and 10% of who are elderly.
Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI) and other advocates are pushing for a Chicago City Council ordinance to ensure public funds intended for affordable housing are used appropriately and accountably, and to ensure the city’s remaining public housing units are replaced on a one-for-one basis. Titled Keeping the Promise, the ordinance has the sponsorship of 25 City Council Members and would give the City Council substantial new oversight authority over city funds awarded to the CHA. Despite an 11-hour hearing held on the Ordinance this past February in the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate, no vote on the Ordinance has taken place or been scheduled.
Demonstrators argued that the CHA’s failure to do its job housing Chicago’s poor, elderly, and disabled shifts the burden of helping these families to other City Departments and agencies, each of which is cash-strapped and ill-equipped to handle the needs of homeless families, such as the Chicago Public Schools, which reported 20,000 homeless students last year.
Another demonstrator, Angela Lacey of Access Living said, “Without the Mayor’s commitment to preserve Chicago’s remaining subsidized housing, the ‘future of Chicago’ will not include us, working class and low-income people of color.”
In response to the demonstration, the Mayor pledged to meet with Chicago Housing Initiative leaders to discuss the Keeping the Promise Ordinance.
During his speech, Jones said vouchers are now accepted Jone in all 77 Chicago communities, and the CHA has continued to expand special programs that meet the unique and time sensitive needs of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents. This includes the addition of 450 vouchers to the 1,000 already provided to homeless veterans and the 325 vouchers provided to those with chronic mental illness.
Jones further noted that affordable housing is just a part of the comprehensive solutions the CHA is pursuing to achieve long-term success. It is programs like Choose to Own, which helps residents become homeowners, and the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program which provides job training, educational opportunities and long-term financial planning, that amplify the stabilizing impact affordable housing has on families. In 2015 FSS program participants earned more than $1.8 million in escrow savings and in 2016, CHA is on track to have its 500th Choose to Own homebuyer.
“Our strategies are working,” Jones said. “We’ve changed the model for what public housing is and should be by learning from the past and setting precedents for the future. We are a model for the rest of the country with a bright future ahead of us.”
The CHA’s 2015 Year in Review and a second report highlighting the progress made over the last 16 years, Creating Opportunity: A Progress Report are available online at www.thecha.org.