CHA seals records on relocation

CHA seals records on relocation – 2002 in Review

Brian J. Rogal

City officials have always said the 10-year Plan for Transformation is about more than knocking down old high-rises: The lives of tens of thousands of Chicago Housing Authority residents, mostly low-income African American women and children, should be transformed while the agency cuts the deals that will pave the way for rebuilding.

The stated goal has been to bring back, by 2009, all displaced families who are lease-compliant and want to return to new, mixed-income neighborhoods. Ideally, many of those who opted to leave public housing permanently would move to low-poverty areas.

Now the city is finding out that demolition is the easy part.

As the plan proceeded in 2002, the CHA presented a rosy view of its actions and its future. But, since July, a group of independent watchdogs, hired by the CHA at the behest of residents, has been nosing around to find out what happened during the past year’s relocation of hundreds of families, and the four reports they have written are believed to blast the CHA for moving too quickly. Some residents say the reports recommend that the agency temporarily halt demolition.

Former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan and two associates, all from Jenner & Block, a Chicago law firm, have interviewed dozens of residents, advocates, agency staff and outside experts who have seen how the agency made way for demolition by moving families to private housing or shifting them to other developments.

But an agreement between the CHA and the Central Advisory Council, a group of elected resident leaders, has kept the reports solely in the hands of the agency, CAC President Mary Wiggins and her lawyers.

Richard Wheelock, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago who represents the CAC, said the council agreed to limit distribution of the reports, hut only because it hoped to sit down with the CHA to work out solutions.

So far the CHA has not responded to most of the reports, Wheelock said. The central council has kept quiet for months about the problems uncovered by Sullivan, he added, but “how much longer we will continue to do so is open to question.”

Kathryn Greenberg, a CHA spokeswoman, called Sullivan’s work an “internal audit” and said the reports were “not open to public distribution.” Sullivan will be paid $500,000, she said.

Sullivan and his staff “don’t work for the CHA-they work for the residents,” said Carol Steele, who is president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council but has not been given the reports. “So I’m wondering what’s going on. How can we not get a copy?”

Sullivan said he submitted reports between July and October. In the first three, he deals with how well relocation went in 2002. The fourth looks ahead to 2003. The last report, which he expects to submit in April, will convey his “thoughts on how the relocation process can be improved.”

Sullivan said he issues his reports to the CHA and CAC. “What they do with them afterward is their business.”

No Reason

Others criticize the housing authority for keeping the reports secret.

“If the CHA takes seriously its commitment to embracing a wider community of actors, then all of those actors should know what the assessment and evaluation is,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociologist who for 13 years has written about the lives of families from the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side.

Venkatesh is currently working with several tenants to track the locations of more than 500 present and former Robert Taylor families after the CHA demolishes their buildings.

The public housing population has been disappearing so fast that, even if the reports are released, valuable time will have been lost, he added. “There is no reason to hold them back.”

The CHA closed eight high-rise buildings this year, including three at Taylor, that were home to roughly 550 families. Altogether, 790 families were relocated by the end of September, officials said.

In 2003, the pace will accelerate, with more buildings shuttered at Cabrini, Taylor, the West Side’s Henry Homer Homes, and other developments, displacing another 1,375 families, CHA documents show.

Wiggins, the GAG president and a resident of the Washington Park development, said the council will “give [copies] to [all resident leaders] before we give it to the public.”

A 2000 contract between the CHA and the CAC spells out residents’ rights during the Plan for Transformation, and calls for an independent monitor.

But it took more than a contract to get Sullivan hired. In March 2001, the CAC and other residents threatened to take legal action against the CHA on several issues, including relocation, said Adam Gross, an attorney for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, which represents residents in the Gautreaux public housing desegregation case.

To avert litigation, Gross said, they told the CHA to “hire the monitor, and we think Tom Sullivan is the guy.”

Request Denied

The experience of the past year, and the extent to which the CHA learns from it, could set the direction of the city’s plan for transforming public housing.

Many organizations–including The Chicago Reporter, the National Center on Poverty Law, which represents Homer residents, and the Residents’ Journal, a publication written by public housing tenants- submitted freedom of information requests to the CHA this fall to obtain copies of Sullivan’s reports. All have been denied.

The reaction to the Sullivan reports is another example of city officials’ reluctance to release information about the transformation.

A key component of the city plan is an ambitious program, known as the Service Connector, to help public housing tenants get jobs and social services.

The city has brought on board a wide array of agencies devoted to job training, child care, counseling and other services for residents. This was the first full year they were all up and operating.

But city officials initially defied the state’s Freedom of Information Act by withholding reports filed by Service Connector staff that showed how many residents were using the services.

Throughout 2002, many of those interviewed by the Reporter, including residents, experts and staff from the private agencies hired to run the Service Connector, expressed some disenchantment with the program, claiming it was underfunded and understaffed.

And after finally turning over the reports, officials told the Service Connector staff they were not allowed to speak with the Reporter.

Extra Mile

Some information has come to light.

According to CHA estimates, of the 550 families the agency planned to relocate from eight high-rises by Sept. 30, 250 were unable to find new homes and were still living in their original buildings in mid-September.

Venkatesh and his tenant researchers found that the problem was especially severe in Robert Taylor, where three buildings were set to close. According to a report they issued in September, 89 percent of the families were still stuck there, some because the CHA had not relocated them, others because they were having trouble finding private apartments with vouchers provided by the CHA. More than half the families did not receive voucher applications in time or lacked proper information on the relocation process.

Most eventually moved to “slightly rehabbed apartments” at other developments, CHA officials said.

Sullivan found many residents did not have enough time to find suitable apartments, Wheelock said. This was a problem the CHA did respond to, he said, and “the [residents and the CHA] were in mutual agreement” that residents needed more than the 180 days used in 2002.

In 2003, residents will be able to “go through background checks, and get their voucher and start looking for an apartment potentially before the 180-day notice goes out,” Greenberg said.

Francine Washington, the local advisory council president for the South Side’s Stateway Gardens, where two buildings were emptied this year, said if she and other council members “didn’t follow through, a lot of residents would fall through the cracks.” They help residents get their vouchers and look at apartments, she said.

She cautions that these methods can’t be easily duplicated. “Everybody doesn’t have the time or the patience. … I get calls at three or four in the morning. [My residents] know I sleep by the phone.” Local council positions are unpaid.

Venkatesh recommends that the CHA hire residents to work as a bridge between other residents and the bureaucracy.

Above all, he said, the CHA must “stop the demolition and relocation for six months. They can’t stop, reflect and retool the program, and continue to do the demolition and relocation.”

When Sullivan’s staff interviewed Steele, she said, “their recommendation was that demolition should stop until more building was done. That’s what they verbally told us and said they put it in their report.”

Greenberg, however, said, “We’re really satisfied [with] the way relocation went this year. There is no indication we will stop.”

Come Clean

Progress on rebuilding public housing units also might improve trust between the residents and the city. In 2001, the CHA estimated that by 2003 it would finish building 550 new units at developments undergoing significant demolition. Recently, it changed the estimate to 232 units.

The agency also planned to have demolished 3,781 units by the end of 2002, and another 2,600 are supposed to go by the end of 2003.

Developments like Robert Taylor and Stateway are already mostly vacant land. For now, at least, many displaced residents keep ties to their former homes.

“Even if they move out, they’re still part of the CHA,” Washington said.

The CHA might have to respond to Sullivan’s reports before much longer. As more buildings are swept away, residents might feel Mayor Daley’s vision is just a mirage.

Beginning with the Gautreaux lawsuit in 1966, and continuing with court settlements reached by tenants at the Henry Homer Homes in 1995 and at Cabrini in 2000, public housing residents have forced the CHA to alter policies they felt were causing segregation or displacement.

To avert that embarrassing possibility, in the coming year officials may have to come clean.

“There is not a PR battle to be fought here,” Venkatesh said. “Residents need to know what’s working and what doesn’t.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group