CHA takes care of its own finances, waiting list grows

The Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t exactly have a distinguished history in serving those that need housing and that trend appears to be continuing:

While tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list for assistance, the Chicago Housing Authority paid off practically all of its debt and overfunded its pension plan, according to a report released Friday by the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The agency also socked away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves even as its ambitious plan to replace thousands of demolished public housing units lagged years behind schedule…

By the end of 2016, the waiting list for housing assistance stood at more than 119,000 households…

Originally, the [Plan for Transformation] was supposed to be completed in 2009, but by then the CHA had delivered just 71 percent of the promised units. The goal was eventually pushed back to 2015. By the end of that year, however, more than 2,000 units still hadn’t been built, the report found. The plan is now expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As the article notes, this is an interesting contrast to many other governments and taxing bodies in Illinois that are struggling to meet their budgets and fund their pensions. But, the trade off here repeats a pattern that the CHA has followed for decades: it doesn’t actually provide enough housing for the needs of city residents.

Once the public housing high rises were torn down (such as the Cabrini-Green towers coming down several years ago), the topic of public housing has not received much attention from the media or the public. However, why don’t we hear more about the slowed Plan for Transformation? What about the growing waiting list (it is not a new problem)? Ultimately, have the efforts since the early 2000s actually improved the housing situation in Chicago or simply moved the problems around (and out of the public view)?

I know there is a lot of concern about the lack of trust the public has in government institutions. From my perspective, a lack of trust in the CHA is entirely warranted (it may never have been warranted given its checkered history) and it would take a lot to reverse this.

Updating the last few years of (private sector) history of Chicago’s public housing

By now, a number of scholars have effectively explained the problematic history of Chicago’s public housing. But, as this new piece from Curbed Chicago suggests, the most recent years have involved a lot of change. Here are some interesting tidbits from this recent history-in-the-making:

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”…

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced…

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

I am skeptical that the private sector alone can solve these housing issues. The free market tends to lead to exclusion and profit-seeking. It doesn’t provide many solutions to correcting existing inequalities, which in the United States tend to connect race, social class, and housing. See an earlier post for a number of the bad outcomes that can result from a free market approach to housing.

On the other hand, the Chicago Housing Authority has done little good. And Americans from the beginning have been ambivalent about involving government in housing. There is little chance that the government will do much more to provide housing – even as the need for affordable housing is great in many cities – because it is a difficult issue in which to find much support.

Perhaps there is a third approach: the US government props up the mortgage industry! Probably not a good long-term solution but this is what we have and it is a system that privileges homeownership.

New York City’s public housing bind

While many cities like Chicago demolished public housing high-rises with federal money, New York City did not do so to the same degree. That means there are public housing issues lurking in the near future:

But now New York City is in a bind. It didn’t have to tear down its high-rises under HOPE VI. But it also didn’t receive federal funding to improve its public housing, as HOPE VI recipients did (in the first decade of the program, the government dispersed $5 billion through HOPE VI). Now, NYCHA is left trying to figure out how to maintain decades-old buildings and reduce the number of people on the waiting list for public housing, all as federal funding for public housing continues to drop.

Popkin, with the Urban Institute, worries that this means that certain high rises in New York’s public-housing system are becoming as bad as the worst projects initially targeted in HOPE VI. Brownsville, in Brooklyn, is now the largest concentration of public housing in the country, for example. Brownsville also has the lowest median household income in New York City. In many other areas of the country, an area of one square mile of public housing would not be allowed to exist anymore. In New York, it still does, even as violence worsens and gangs take over. And the city doesn’t have the funds to change that, let alone improve other public housing buildings.

Public housing in New York City hasn’t received as much attention from scholars and the press as it has in other cities – particularly compared to Chicago. Perhaps this is because the situation was never quite as bad, whether due to lower levels of isolation (as noted in the article) or because the NYCHA was better managed than the chronically mismanaged Chicago Housing Authority. Or perhaps the urban sociologists in NYC focused on other topics. Or maybe the glittering portions of New York City are overwhelming – don’t forget the current luxury construction boom in the city.

In the long run, New York City is not immune to the same issues of inequality and a lack of affordable housing that many major cities face. If the city wants to avoid facing bigger problems down the road, it would be prudent to take action on housing now.

Over 2,000 new housing units in CHA proposal for Cabrini-Green site

Redevelopment at Cabrini-Green continues with the Chicago Housing Authority’s unveiled proposal this week for over 2,000 new housing units:

Last night, the Chicago Housing Authority formally unveiled its most recent and fully detailed proposal for the nearly 65 acres of land that once belonged the massive Cabrini-Green housing project. Earlier this year, the CHA unveiled a draft plan for the site, which sought to draw out an idea of where housing, retail and new park spaces would be located, however, last night’s meeting offered a clearer picture of how many housing units are planned for the area. The large area will be redeveloped in three phases, and will ultimately produce 2,330 to 2,830 new residences.

Currently, developers are swarming in with new retail and apartment projects, but some are arguing that the new plans don’t offer enough density. Private developers will compete to build new structures on the large parcel of land, with the first phase delivering 970-1,270 units, according to DNAinfo. The balance between market rate, affordable and public housing has not been unveiled, however the CHA could get started on the first as early as late next year.

This is valuable land as larger parcels like this, particularly on the North Side and near other desirable locations, are rare. I would imagine there will be no shortage of developers who have ideas of how lots of money can be made. Of course, this was one of the arguments of residents and critics of the plan to tear down the high-rises: was this really about providing better public housing and housing opportunities for residents or was this about opening land on the North Side for developers?

CHA opens all three housing waiting lists for first time ever, expects over 250,000 applicants

The Chicago Housing Authority opened its three housing lists yesterday and is expecting a lot of people to sign up:

Agency officials expect more than 250,000 families to apply for spots on three waiting lists — one for public housing, one for housing vouchers and one for apartments in privately owned subsidized housing,

“We don’t have a set number of slots available. … We can’t predict how long people will be on the wait list,” said Katie Ludwig, a deputy chief housing officer at the CHA. “We are getting to the end of our (current) wait lists, and we thought it was a great opportunity for people who are in need of housing. We thought we’d open all three lists at the same time. It’s something we’ve never done.”…

Having their name on a list at the agency does not guarantee housing. It is simply one step closer to participating in the agency’s programs. Historically, the CHA has had wait lists that surpass 15,000 families for each of its programs, records show.

Residents can wait years to be called in for housing.

Still, the current move comes as the agency has been under fire for not doing enough to house the city’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. In July, a report from an independent think tank revealed that the agency had banked more than $355 million rather than use the money for housing. Local officials and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have pressed the agency to serve more people.

Two things have not changed:

1. The CHA continues in not providing enough housing.

2. There is a lot of demand in Chicago for affordable housing.

Both of these issues date back decades. The CHA has been either slow or incompetent, or perhaps both. While new housing units may have been built for wealthier residents in trendy neighborhoods or along the lakefront, the city still does not have enough affordable or public housing. You might think these problems might be solved at some point given their long history and the basic need for decent housing but there has not even been much conversation about addressing these concerns.

Residential and commercial properties go up at Cabrini-Green site

A number of new buildings are going up on the site of the former high-rises of Cabrini-Green:

It’s coming together already. A Target store opened north of Gerding’s site last fall, and a developer is negotiating to buy a parcel just northeast of the store and may build apartments there, says Chicago-based Baum Realty Group LLC Vice President Greg Dietz, who’s selling the property. He declines to identify the developer. Chicago-based Structured Development LLC and John Bucksbaum are building 199 apartments and 360,000 square feet of retail space on the former site of the New City YMCA at Clybourn Avenue and Halsted Street. And a 190,000-square-foot retail-and-office development and new store for boating retailer West Marine are in the works at Division and Halsted streets.But the biggest opportunity may be the Cabrini-Green site itself as well as other vacant land in the area controlled by the Chicago Housing Authority, a 28-acre patchwork that stretches from Division up to Blackhawk Avenue. This fall, the CHA plans to seek development proposals for the land, where it wants a mix of subsidized and market-rate residential units and retail space. The push could add thousands of apartments and condominiums to the area, spurring more development between Lincoln Park and River North—and even to the west.

“There’s easy access to jobs and amenities and restaurants . . . and really you’re not that far from the lake,” says David Brint, principal at Northbrook-based Brinshore Development LLC, which is building an 82-unit mixed-income apartment building at Division and Clybourn. “It’s likely you’ll see the continued evolution of development all the way to the highway.”…

Yet the CHA will have the most influence over the neighborhood’s future. The authority has committed to add 1,786 public housing units in the area to replace those demolished at Cabrini-Green, a project that includes the still-standing Frances Cabrini Rowhouses between Chicago Avenue and Oak Street. So far, the CHA has brought back about 610 public housing units, with 221 in the planning stage, says Richard Wheelock, director of advocacy at legal advocacy group LAF in Chicago.

This is valuable property and this contributed to the longer fight – particularly compared to other high-rise public housing projects in Chicago – between residents and the CHA about what would happen to the land. Thus, it is little surprise that developers are pushing residential and commercial construction. The real question has to do with the status of public housing units: will the CHA follow through in providing nearby units? While some have been built in new mixed-income neighborhoods, there is a long way to go in providing public housing and it may only get more difficult as new market-rate residents and businesses move in.

Putting together plans for the final redevelopment of Cabrini-Green

All the high-rises at Cabrini-Green are gone but the planning of what will replace them continues:

Next week, CHA officials will hold open houses for developers who will learn what parameters the agency has designed for construction of new housing and retail. The land boundaries are North Avenue to Chicago Avenue and Halsted to Orleans…

Last spring CHA unveiled Plan Forward as a way to wrap up the final stretch. Former CHA CEO Charles Woodyard resigned last fall amid sexual harassment allegations, but also because City Hall became disenchanted with the slow pace of progress.

The goal is for Cabrini construction to start by 2015 on the mostly vacant 65 acres. The Cabrini rowhouses will remain but not be 100 percent public housing – much to the chagrin of many residents. Of the 583 units, 146 have been redeveloped into public housing and will stay that way. The others are empty. Originally, CHA had planned to keep the row houses all public housing.

“We felt that in order for Plan Forward to work, in order to have a very vibrant community and what works for the residents to move toward self sufficiency, it was important to do mixed income. Not to leave that area to be the only secluded area that remained 100 percent public housing,” Brown said…

“We’re adamant that the row houses be rehabbed to 100 percent public housing like it was supposed to be,” [row-house resident activist] Steele said.

This seems like an appropriate path forward based on the prior history of redevelopment at Cabrini-Green:

1. The CHA’s difficult history continues with yet another new leader plus plans that stretch on longer than anticipated with funding problems.

2. The city continues its interest in mixed-income development which gives developers some great opportunities to build on the North Side (and profit) while also providing some public housing units but not having to provide for all of the public housing residents.

3. The public housing residents, particularly compared to some of the other Chicago housing projects, continue to speak out and challenge the city’s plans.

Sixty-five acres of land in this part of Chicago will be attractive to numerous people and I hope the public gets to see the competing proposals.