CHICAGO — Alderpeople and Chicago Housing Authority residents ripped into the agency when its top leader made a rare appearance before the City Council Tuesday.
Tracey Scott, the CHA’s chief executive, was barraged with complaints about poor building conditions, questions about the agency’s deal to lease land to the Chicago Fire soccer team and concerns about its vacant units amid the city’s homeless crisis.
“I appreciate that you’ve taken on CHA,” Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) told Scott. “Because CHA is a monster. It’s a monster.”
Dozens of seniors who live in the Albany Terrace Apartments in South Lawndale came to the meeting to decry slum-like conditions in their building, saying its pipes burst during a cold spell in December. Residents were left in unsafe conditions, they said, with some using gas stoves to stay warm.
Resident Charles Odum said elevators constantly malfunctioned, there were bed bugs in the building and that there wasn’t access to regularly functioning washers and dryers.
“We told them our disapproval,” Odum said of the meeting.
Scott noted the concerns and said the agency had received significant funds to redevelop the property starting within the coming month.
But alderpeople jumped on the opportunity Tuesday to pepper the agency and its leadership with broader questions and scathing remarks on everything from its voucher sign-up process to complaints about building management.
A municipal agency overseen by a mayor-appointed board, the CHA owns about 20,000 apartments across the city. It also provides thousands of families with vouchers to help them rent privately-owned units. The agency receives most of its funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Recently, the agency has come under fire for its tepid response to the city’s growing population of residents experiencing homelessness and a deal it made with the Chicago Fire to lease a large tract of land on the Near West Side that was originally promised for public and affordable housing. The team plans to build a practice facility on the site.
“How is it possible that with tens of thousands of homeless people living in parks, shelters and couchsurfing, that the city is prepared to lease public housing land to a soccer team?” resident Anthony Perkins said.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), whose ward includes part of the former ABLA Homes development where the soccer facility is planned, requested a full financial analysis of the housing authority’s lease with the soccer team.
“There are some serious concerns,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “My biggest concern is the gentrification of the ABLA homes area…. What we have seen, time after time, are deals that have not included the community.”
Scott said that the deal with Fire had not been finalized, but the team had agreed to lease the ABLA land for $1 million a year for 40 years. She said some of the proceeds would go to rehabbing the Jane Addams Homes, which are part of ABLA, and the Fire had agreed to provide a new basketball court, green space and internship and job opportunities in sports management.
“We can meet our commitment of housing in that area, with the soccer development as well,” Scott said.
But some aldermen weren’t convinced, and continued to question the development throughout the three-hour hearing.
“It seems counterintuitive to me that CHA would move forward in accomplishing its goal of creating housing for people that it displaced, and helping to meet the needs of affordable housing, by selling some of its land,” Hadden said.
The housing authority also faced criticism of its “Plan For Transformation,” a massive citywide redevelopment effort launched in 2000. Under the plan, the CHA displaced thousands of residents and tore down tens of thousands of units, promising to replace them with mixed-income communities.
But after more than two decades, the CHA still hasn’t fulfilled its promises to rebuild many of the sites.
“Can we publicly say the plan for transformation failed? It’s obvious it did,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), said Tuesday.
Many aldermen questioned what the housing authority’s plan was for the approximately 2,000 vacant units it had across the city, particularly as the city’s population of people experiencing homelessness swells to more than 60,000 and waitlists continue to grow. Sigcho-Lopez asked why the housing authority sits on approximately $500 million in cash, while Ald. James Cappelman (46th), said many buildings in his ward don’t even have locks.
“It’s frustrating. I’m seeing this breakdown in communication,” Cappleman said.
Scott responded by saying that of the 2,000 vacant units, about 1,000 were in the process of being redeveloped. She said the agency needs to keep cash on hand to develop projects, and that CHA properties were currently at 90 percent occupancy.
Scott also blamed many of the agency’s limitations on Congress not expanding low income tax credits in its most recent budget, which she said were essential for affordable housing development.
“We are committed to mixed-income community development,” Scott said. “The fact of the matter is, the money’s not just sitting there to make it happen overnight.”
But alderman also followed up on concerns raised by tenants in the public comment section of the meeting, expressing exasperation with the housing authority’s waitlist, home ownership program and voucher system, the lack of ADA access in buildings and the constant turnover in building managers.
“The homeownership program, the building managers, suck,” Taylor said. “And the CHA sucks at not even letting people know [home ownership] is an option. We know homeownership leads to generational wealth. Are you saying that Black and Brown folks should not have it? I know that’s not what you’re saying. But it’s what the system has said to us…this ain’t a matter of, ‘we don’t have the answers.’ This is a matter of, ‘we just don’t listen.’”
Alderman Roberto Maldonado (26th) sharply questioned Scott on the city’s complicated process for providing residents with rental-subsidy vouchers. He called for a more centralized sign-up system that informed potential tenants of available public housing in their neighborhoods.
“I’m very, very dissatisfied with [the current] approach,” Maldonado said. “Navigating any website at CHA is not an easy thing. And for the average potential tenant, it is even more difficult.”
Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd) also blasted the housing authority’s management of the Lathrop Homes development in Lakeview, accusing the agency of neglecting the buildings to better incentivize their tear-down.
“Lathrop has languished for far too long,” Waguespack said. “The people who live around there are disgusted…there is an absolutely abysmal approach to maintaining those buildings on the south part of the site.”
“He’s being too kind,” added Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), who chairs the city’s housing and real estate committee. The unfinished redevelopment of Lathrop “sends a message to the community directly there, and to other communities, that adding affordable housing is not being taken care of.”
Scott said that the housing authority planned to make more progress at Lathrop in 2023.
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