Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies on the City Council have effectively quashed a Chicago Housing Authority accountability ordinance meant to preserve the total number of public housing units in the city, grant the council some oversight of the agency, and affect future and ongoing public housing developments, including the redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes.
The “Keeping the Promise” ordinance was originally proposed in September 2014, following revelations that the CHA had stockpiled a surplus of almost $430 million while hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans languished in deteriorating units, homeless shelters, or on the streets. The Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of eight community organizations dedicated to housing advocacy, worked with 19 aldermen to introduce the legislation.
The ordinance would force the CHA to regularly report to the City Council on the state of its surplus funds, and ensure that 97 percent of these funds be dedicated to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly known as Section 8. The CHA’s reports would also have to include updates on the Plan for Transformation, an initiative to redevelop and rehabilitate the bulk of Chicago’s public housing that was supposed to be completed in 2010. If the CHA failed to issue these reports or spend its surplus in the assigned manner, the council would be able to withhold city funds.
The law also mandates that all proposed redevelopments that would result in a net loss in public housing units be accompanied by a plan to replace those units elsewhere in the city.
After it was introduced, the bill languished until July 2015, when it was reintroduced by First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno. This time, however, the ordinance was lacking a notable cosponsor: 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, who had just been appointed to chair the Committee on Housing and Real Estate.
Moore was a strong supporter of the Keeping the Promise ordinance when it was first introduced, but has since joined the mayor and the CHA in opposing the bill. It took considerable lobbying and a number of delays before his committee finally held an 11-hour hearing on the ordinance in mid-February. Since then, it hasn’t come up for a vote, and still faces considerable opposition from the mayor, the CHA, and Moore.
“It’s not going to have my support, that’s for sure,” Moore told the Reader. And, as committee chairman, he has the power to suppress the ordinance indefinitely.
Moore argues that the bill would hamper the CHA’s flexibility in spending city and federal funds.
“It puts into place a whole new set of procedural burdens and hurdles that would discourage the private development community from getting involved with public housing developments and drive a knife into the heart of the Plan for Transformation,” Moore says.
Moore also argues that the CHA no longer needs oversight from the City Council, because its days of mismanagement are over. The organization’s new CEO, Eugene Jones Jr., has made numerous improvements towards completing the Plan for Transformation and distributing Section 8 vouchers, Moore says. He’s even started to spend the surplus, which was down to $221 million by the end of 2015.
“I’m convinced that [he] is really committed to dispersing those dollars and operating in a much more transparent fashion, and I think he ought to be given the chance to prove himself,” Moore says.
The Reader‘s Ben Joravsky previously reported on the way committee chairs like Moore are pulled in two directions and often have a hard time opposing the mayor.
Leah Levinger, who heads the CHI, disagrees with Moore’s arguments, and accuses the alderman of changing teams to please his boss. “These are problems of structure,” she says. “From the most basic perspective of good governance, you do not want to create systems that rely on exceptional individuals as leaders,” especially in an institution that has had four CEOs in five years.
Levinger argues that the CHA still lacks clear performance and accountability standards, despite its new leadership. “There are no standards on vacancies in public housing,” she says. “There are no standards on rebuilding. There are no standards on how much they can keep on reserve. All of the problems continue to be problems.”
Despite this, Levinger and other advocates believe that opposition to the ordinance is founded not in worries over the CHA’s flexibility or confidence in Jones’s accomplishments, but rather in a classic power struggle between the mayor and the people.
Because the CHA isn’t regulated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the only institution that has any oversight ability is the mayor’s office. The ordinance would democratize that oversight, giving the City Council considerable sway over the agency’s work.
“The mayor’s under siege, and I think his assessment is that giving ground to collaborate with City Council on one specific agency might whet aldermen’s appetites for greater power over other agencies as well,” Levinger says. In her view, “you can’t shortchange sharing power with aldermen on this and expect the public housing system to work in the ways that you give lip service to.”
The mayor’s office, meanwhile, says in an e-mailed statement that “the Emanuel Administration and the Chicago Housing Initiative have the same objective: providing as much affordable housing for those in need as possible. This ordinance unfortunately would get in the way of achieving this goal.”
So what’s at stake in this fight? The city’s plan for Lathrop Homes, a housing project that has 925 public housing units, will only replace 400 of those units (the rest will be market rate). If the council was somehow able to get past Moore and the mayor, the ordinance would mandate that the CHA produce a plan to rebuild those 525 lost units elsewhere in the city.
But if these politics play out as they have over the past year, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.