Officials: CHA residents better off in wake of 'Plan'

The lives of public housing residents have improved since the Plan for Transformation started nine years ago, says the Chicago Housing Authority's top official, citing new data from the agency's tracking system.

But it's not clear that everyone living in public housing in 1999 has been counted.

More than 4,200 residents have taken temporary or permit housing vouchers and left the CHA's housing developments, landing in 70 of the city's 77 neighborhoods, says Chief Executive Officer Lewis Jordan. Almost 2,700 families have moved into mixed-income communities, which offer an equal mix of public, affordable and market-rate housing.

"One thing we can say for sure is that leaseholders are living better than they were on October 1, 1999," Jordan said at the CHA commissioners meeting earlier this week. Anyone who lived in one of the CHA's 25,000 units on Oct. 1, 1999 is guaranteed the right to return to either a rehabbed public housing development or a new mixed-income community after the $1.6 billion Plan is completed.

More than 9,000 seniors are living in newly rehabbed apartments; another 4,000 residents await their new homes in traditional public housing. Half live in the same place they did in 1999, half do not.

The CHA cannot locate about 1,100 of the original families, and another 1,300 have been evicted, according to figures the CHA released in December 2007.

The families the CHA is tracking appear to be better off, says Richard Wheelock, head of the housing project for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. Yet the tally of all CHA families - current residents, evicted or lost - totals just under 22,500. That leaves approximately 2,500 families unaccounted for.

The reality is that these residents are not living in subsidized housing, and many of them do not respond to CHA notices, says CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar.

Jordan also says residents' wage income has risen, particularly for those living in mixed-income communities. Average wages for household heads, aged 18 to 61, almost doubled from nine years earlier to $19,961, according to the latest figures. They peaked at $24,000 a year among residents in mixed-income communities. (The numbers were not adjusted for inflation, which has risen 32 percent since 1999; that means the purchasing power is roughly a third less, or $16,000 instead of $19,961.)

Income data that includes children and seniors is much lower, even though it includes payments other than wages, such as welfare or disability checks. According to a 2008 report published by the CHA, average annual household income was approximately $13,000.

Jordan also pointed out that as public residents have moved out of the high-rises, they have not clustered in impoverished neighborhoods. Less than 10 percent moved to areas where more than 40 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the CHA.

The percentage may be higher. After analyzing data provided by the housing agency, it appears 921 public housing residents, about 13 percent, have moved to areas of concentrated poverty.

The data compiler could not be reached by deadline Friday to answer questions about the discrepancy.

Some residents choose to stay in poor neighborhoods because they want to live close to their families and churches, but the real problem is one of supply - neighborhoods with good schools and jobs lack affordable housing, says Robin Snyderman, a housing policy expert with the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The latest numbers from the CHA, while demonstrating how far there is to go, show a trajectory in the right direction, she says.

"There's no magic pill to alleviate poverty in our nation," she says. "Any time you can look back and see improvement, you have to seize on it to show you're on the right track."