New CHA chief pledges open ear

When Lewis Jordan steps in as director of the Chicago Housing Authority tomorrow, he will take over an agency with nearly twice as many clients as the county housing authority he's headed for the past 19 months.

He will also be charged with completing the CHA's ambitious Plan for Transformation, with its goals of 25,000 housing units by 2015 and the resettlement of many residents into scattered site, mixed-income communities.

But Jordan, 48, says that 20 years of experience in corporate America years has given him the experience he needs to tackle the challenges ahead.

"I'm process-driven," said Jordan. "In any organization you work in, be it CHA or a place with only 200 people, you can develop processes and measurements to track the results of what you're doing.

"I'm confident that putting those business processes in place, along with making sure that I put talented people around me, will bring good results."

What emerges from interviews with people who've worked with Jordan, however, is his willingness to reach out to the various members of the complex community that sustains public housing -- local governments, corporate partners, advocacy organizations, and the residents themselves.

Jordan spent the first two years of his life in Chicago's Rockwell Gardens project and was raised by a single mother on the West Side.

It's this background, he says, along with a continual effort to "stay in touch" that helps him to keep the residents' hopes and frustrations at the forefront of the planning process.

Asked to summarize his program for the CHA, Jordan placed strengthening the agency's relationship with the residents at the top of his list.

"It's crucial that we make sure that we're doing what it is that they want, and also, that they understand what we're doing," said Jordan.

Before tackling the challenges of public housing, Jordan built a 19-year career at Allstate Insurance Co. that included stints as operations unit manager for Arlington Heights, operations division manager for South Barrington, and human resources staff manager for the corporate office in Northbrook.

In 2002 Rockford mayor Doug Scott tapped the Rockford resident, known for his leadership of that city's NAACP and participation in local Cease Fire programs, to head the local housing authority.

When Jordan took over the Rockford Housing Authority in August 2002, he inherited an agency in financial straits. The Department of Housing and Urban Development placed the agency on financial probation.

The agency faced further pressure when HUD slashed federal funding for the agency by $3.8 million, a result of a shortfall in its own budget.

Jordan oversaw a restructuring that involved slashing staff by half and contracting out some services, according to reports in the Rockford Register. Eventually about half of the staff were re-hired when funding was restored.

"When he left, they were in pretty good shape financially," said Rockford Ald. Carl Wasco, who served as a Rockford Housing Authority commissioner for two and a half years during Jordan's tenure. "They had reorganized some staff and efficiencies were up."

Wasco rated hiring good people and problem solving among Jordan's strengths. But he also said he reached out to the community, "and that's not always easy to do."

When Jordan moved to the Housing Authority of Cook County in the summer of 2006 he took over an agency with approximately 2,100 housing units. The agency also had 12,000 participants in a voucher program that provides Section 8 subsidies for low income people to rent apartments on the private market.

Boyce Mayse, president of the tenants' council for the Golden Towers senior housing development in Chicago Heights, said that residents there saw Jordan as a "fine gentleman."

Last month Golden Towers unveiled its rehabbed facilities, featuring renovated kitchens and baths. Jordan oversaw the completion of the two-year project, which was initiated under his predecessor.

Mayse said that Jordan gave the residents good advice on how to organize their tenants' council. He also said the temporary relocation of the residents went smoothly during the renovation project.

"He's always been there for the seniors," said Mayse.

Gail Schechter of Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs said she was troubled by Jordan's  efforts to convert some units to elderly housing, potentially displacing disabled residents.

Jordan's predecessor at Cook County had asked HUD to designate nine buildings in the northern suburbs as senior only.

Although Jordan rescinded the order after meeting with advocacy groups, he later came back with an application to convert six buildings.

HUD turned down the request, which Schechter said would have dramatically affected the disabled population in county public housing.

"There was no compelling reason presented to HUD as to why these should be converted," Schechter said.

Schechter also said she saw little improvement in the county's support services for tenants on the voucher program. Things like mobility counseling fell short of what the CHA has in place, she said.

But Robin Snyderman, vice president of community development at the Metropolitan Planning Council, offered praise for Jordan's handling of the county voucher program.

Snyderman, who began collaborating with Jordan shortly after he took over the county agency, credited Jordan with providing strong leadership on two pilot initiatives to strengthen the voucher program. Both initiatives required extensive inter-agency coordination and planning, she said.

"I was impressed by the fact that he was willing to think creatively, meeting with people who hadn't been involved with these projects in the past," said Snyderman. "He laid a lot of groundwork in the last two years."

In an effort to spread public housing options more evenly throughout the county, Snyder said Jordan spent a lot of time talking to mayors and community leaders in the south suburbs about their concerns, as well as reaching out to areas in the north county.

"It took a lot of courage and a lot of diplomacy. And it was well-received," said Snyder.

This kind of bridge-building could prove to be a crucial asset for Jordan at the CHA. Two years ago one of Jordan's predecessors, Terry Peterson, drew intense criticism from aldermen who said the agency was concentrating relocated residents in a few poor communities.

Other challenges await Jordan at the CHA.

The agency recently announced new rules that will extend its work requirement to a new category of residents. Under the new rules, housing residents who are not students or retirees will be required to work at least 15 hours a week, increasing to 20 hours by 2010.

"I like the idea," said Jordan, who enforced work rules while at Rockford.

But he emphasizes that the plan will only work if the residents are given a lot of support.

"We need to look at our current population to see how we can help them to eventually transition to the outside world," said Jordan. "This requires looking at education and job readiness. This is about helping them build skills."

Another priority for Jordan is improving public housing's "curbside appeal."

"We don't want people to show up as islands," said Jordan. "We want them to blend and be an integral part of the community."

Jordan will also have to juggle the competing needs of disabled adults and senior citizens.

Beto Barrera, housing team leader at Access Living, wants the CHA to accommodate the thousands of young, disabled people who are on waiting lists to get into public housing.

The city has designated 50 buildings for seniors only, Barrera said, resulting in hundreds of vacant units and "closing the doors on young, disabled people."

Barrera said his organization plans to lobby the CHA to lower the age of senior housing from 62 to 55.

Meanwhile, seniors are pressuring their alderman to push for the seniors-only designation.

The issue, he said, has become a "political hot potato."

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the CHA's transformation plan goal of 25,000 housing units by 2015. An earlier version gave an incorrect deadline.