Housing agency struggles to speed up residents' return

The Chicago Housing Authority board voted yesterday to streamline the process for offering new and rehabbed homes to public housing residents who have moved away during the Plan for Transformation.

The agency and developers have had trouble filling vacant units because some families who are eligible for the new homes haven't responded to the CHA's housing offers.

Yesterday's measure makes it easier for the CHA to offer new units to other eligible tenants if residents higher on the list don't take up the offer.

"The only people who are affected are those who don't respond," says Matt Aguilar, a spokesman for the CHA. "It puts the affirmative obligation on them to do something to be put back on the list."

Doing so will help other residents move into new homes faster, says Mary Wiggins, president of the Central Advisory Council, which represents all CHA tenants.

Richard Wheelock, head of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago's housing project, says officials and housing advocates assumed "everybody was going to be banging down the doors to come back."

The fact that some have not, he says, is an "unfortunate development" resulting from a redevelopment process that moved people out of their homes long before new units became available.

Some people might be reluctant to abandon new roots, others might not want to live in the CHA's mixed-income communities, which are equally divided between public, affordable and market-rate housing.

"The longer people are off site, the less likely they are to come back," says Wheelock.

The CHA says the original agreement said families would have to leave their buildings so they could be rehabbed.

"We're fulfilling our end of the bargain, and that was the original plan," Aguilar says.

A 2001 contract governs the process of offering new housing. Residents who lived in public housing as of Oct. 1, 1999 have first claim on the new units, the so-called "right of return." About 16,700 families were guaranteed a spot, then randomly ranked. Since then half have returned to a permanent home, died or been evicted.

Residents can choose to live at one of three sites. When a slot at a given site becomes available, the CHA offers it to residents who want to live there, with higher ranked residents getting first choice.

The CHA found itself legally bound to offer the same units again and again to residents who didn't answer its letters. Developers were unhappy because empty units invited vandals.

The change means the CHA will need to contact residents only twice instead of three times to offer a housing unit. If they don't respond, the CHA warns them they will be placed on an "inactive" list for that particular site unless they contact the agency within 30 days. Residents on the inactive list aren't notified of vacancies for that site; they still hear about openings at their two other preferred sites.

If residents are placed on the inactive list for all three of their preferred sites, the CHA will give them one year to seek reinstatement. After that, they lose their right of return.

The contract change reflects the reality that the relocation process has proved more complicated than CHA originally envisioned, says Julie Elena Brown, senior staff counsel for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a group CHA consulted before making the change. It will help lease units but still protect the rights of residents.

In other business:

* The CHA board delayed voting on a resolution related to a summer job program for teenagers who live in public housing. Proposed changes to the program have upset several members of the Central Advisory Council, which represents all CHA residents.

* Announced the opening of Fountain View Apartments, a new mixed-income community, on June 10 in North Lawndale. The 45-unit building at 3718 W. Douglas Blvd. has energy-efficient furnaces, wiring for high-speed Internet connections, a computer in every apartment and training on how to use it. Fourteen apartments are reserved for CHA residents.

* Achieved a benchmark set two years ago for units accessible to people with disabilities. Now there are 288 units available for people with mobility problems, and 125 units available for the blind.

"That's a major milestone with our funding with HUD and relationship with the community," said CEO Lewis Jordan.