By Lolly Bowean
On the day a think-tank publicly released a report that says the Chicago Housing Authority has been socking away hundreds of millions of dollars instead of using it for housing for the poor, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked the agency to do more.
"Since HUD learned of the level of the reserves, it has prompted CHA to issue more vouchers," said Brian Gillen, a spokesman in the Chicago office, in a written statement.
HUD's push for the CHA to improve its utilization of the housing choice voucher program came as activists gathered outside a City Council hearing Wednesday to demand elected officials and local leaders step in to better monitor the agency.
The council should pass an ordinance requiring CHA to report its activities and its use of federal dollars, publicly on a regular basis, said Leah Levinger, the director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, an advocacy group.
"We want to establish transparency at CHA," she said. "Currently CHA only reports to its board, which is appointed. That hasn't been sufficient. We're a world class city, we should have a world class housing authority."
According to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability report, the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer Housing Choice Vouchers than it could have every year between 2008 and 2012. The vouchers pay the majority of the rent costs for apartments and houses for poor residents in the private market.
By not issuing the federally funding vouchers, the agency saved an average of $90 million every year over a nine year period. The CHA spent some of the federal dollars on other-housing related expenses, debts and obligations, but what was left over was put into reserves, which by 2012 totaled $432 million, the center's report says.
The CHA disputes the CTBA report's tally of its reserves. The agency currently has $355 million saved, a spokeswoman for the agency said. And for the first time in more than five years, the CHA is issuing housing choice vouchers to 3,000 residents who are currently on its closed waiting list, officials said. The agency will award 40,679 vouchers this year, the spokeswoman said, citing updated figures.
There are 15,230 families waiting for housing vouchers, reports show.
The CHA is governed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which approves the agency's spending plans and budgets. But unlike many public housing agencies, the CHA is uniquely classified by the federal government as a "Moving to Work" agency. That designation gives the agency flexibility in how it spends -- or doesn't spend -- federal dollars.
Still, activists, residents and advocates who gathered on Wednesday said the agency needs more pressure from local leaders to make sure more of the most vulnerable and needy get access to housing assistance.
"A government agency that is funded to serve the poor should not be allowed to be dysfunctional or poor performing," said Lissette Castaneda, co-chair of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association's Housing Committee, which is pushing to prevent the demolition of the Julia Lathrop Homes on the North Side.
As a result of the CTBA study, activists have asked several local aldermen to introduce in the fall an ordinance titled "Keeping the Promise" that would seek to give the city council more authority over the CHA.
Although the city does appoint the board which oversees CHA, it is unclear how much local leaders can regulate the agency.
"We don't have direct control over CHA," said Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st. "When you find that they have those types of reserves out there, they've dismantled so much public housing, you ask: 'Why aren't they rebuilding this housing? Why aren't they housing people? Why aren't they moving forward? It appears that it is wasteful as far as resources."
For years, Kina Ward, 39, said she has signed up to get a housing voucher and she has been repeatedly denied without reason. Ward said she struggles to pay her bills and provide as a single mother to four young children. Ward lives in Greater Grand Crossing in a three bedroom apartment. She is disabled and three of her children have special needs, she said.
"I often cry because as a mother, I want to provide fully for my children," she said. "No mother should ever be put in this position."
When she learned about the money the CHA is not spending, Ward said she felt compelled to speak out. Not only would a housing voucher pay for a bigger space for her family, Ward said it would help her cover her other living expenses more easily.
"It saddens me that families that could have adequate housing are denied that right and no one is being held accountable," she said. "Something needs to be done about the way CHA operates."
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