CHA struggles to track down displaced residents

When the plan to revitalize Chicago's public housing began in 1999, many residents and housing advocates said it would permanently displace thousands of low-income people. Ten years later, where have the residents of those fallen high-rises ended up?

According to the Chicago Housing Authority's annual report, construction on the Plan for Transformation is 68 percent complete.

About 52 percent of the original residents who lived in public housing have found a place to live, either in a new or rehabbed public housing unit or in a private-market apartment on a subsidized voucher.

But the numbers from CHA also reveal nearly a quarter of families who lived in public housing when the plan started seem to be missing in action.  Over 4,200 families who have the right to return to public housing can't be reached.

Phil Nyden, director of the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University, says both numbers are cause for concern.

"That would mean about half of the folks out there are still in need of housing," says Nyden. "And to lose 4,200 families - that's just a lot of families."

But CHA officials say they're working on updating the list so that
every family  who has the right to return to public housing has that
chance.

"We have not lost anyone, but these families no longer live in subsidized housing and may not wish to return to public housing," says Kellie O'Connell-Miller, director of research, reporting and communications at CHA.

Some residents are skeptical of CHA's efforts to bring people back. Carol Steele, director of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, says she doubts half of the original residents have returned, but she's also not surprised that CHA can't track down so many families.

"If the Chicago Housing Authority is trying to get out of the public housing business, then frankly, they don't give a damn where people have gone to," says Steele. "I don't think they're looking hard enough."

Rich Wheelock, housing lawyer at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, says the numbers don't reveal whether the agency hasn't properly tracked where residents have gone or if the residents themselves just haven't responded to the housing authority's letters or phone calls.

"Of those 4,200 families, how many addresses don't they have?" says Wheelock. "We can only hope that they will be able to reach them."

CHA has hired a contractor to help locate the tough-to-find former tenants. In June of 2008, CHA granted Globetrotters International, Inc. a $744,000 contract to update the housing authority's records of leaseholders who have the right of return.

 

"The project with Globetrotters International is helping CHA update the 10/1/99/ list to ensure all eligible residents understand their options and can make informed decisions about their housing choices," says Miller, director of research, reporting and communication at CHA.

Keeping track of low-income families is a common challenge, especially since they tend to move often and without much notice, says Nyden.

"When people are at the edge of the job market, on the edge of the housing market, they can be difficult to track," says Nyden. "They don't have phones that go with them, and many of them don't have cell phones."

Maria Hibbs, executive director at the Partnership for New Communities, says the housing authority is working hard on the problem.

"The CHA is making a real concerted effort to do that at this point in the plan," says Hibbs. "They want to contact as many people as they can so that people have the opportunity to make the choice."

In addition to having problems keeping track of residents, the annual report also revealed problems in meeting goals to rehab old units. At the Cabrini rowhouses, CHA set a goal of rehabbing 100 units last year, but not a single one is complete.

The problems aren’t CHA’s fault, Wheelock says. Instead, a contractor ordered the wrong cabinets for the units. As a result, construction has been significantly delayed, he says.

Wheelock says he hopes the units will be ready for move-in this summer, but the delay has caused frustration among residents.

"They keep hearing that at some point, they will be able to move in," says Wheelock. "People would like to have some certainty about where they're going to be."

Housing authority representatives say they're working on the problem.

"CHA is vigorously pursuing corrective action to quickly deliver units to the residents while maintaining its high quality standards for construction," says O'Connell-Miller.

Overall, CHA has made progress on the Plan for Transformation, Wheelock says. But delays in construction, the rocky housing market and the CHA’s trouble in finding residents may ultimately mean that fewer people find affordable housing.

"The longer the time lag the more likely families are to establish themselves in the communities where they've been displaced," says Wheelock. "It makes it more difficult for these families to return."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.

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