The CHAs Plan for Transformation guarantees every public housing family a place to live after the agency demolishes its 52 high-rises and builds mixed-income communities in their place. But the plan makes no provision for those on the waiting list.
From 1994 to 1999, 36,989 families applied for CHA housing, agency records show. In those six years, 3,754 left the list to move into CHA family units. The agency still accepts applications, which most prospective tenants fill out at the CHA Occupancy Department, 4700 S. State St. Applications are stamped with date and time, which determines their place on waiting lists organized by the number of bedrooms requested.
When applicants reach the top of the lists, they are matched with the first available apartment. Families who turn down housing offers are removed from the general waiting list, but can add their names to a secondary list for specific properties or scattered-site housing, said Gregory Russ, chief of staff for the CHAs Operations Department. The thousands of scattered-site units are intended to help fulfill a longstanding federal court order to desegregate public housing.
Under federal law, the CHA was required to give preference to families on the list who lived in substandard housing, paid more than half their incomes toward rent, or were homeless. Congress made those requirements optional in 1998, and the agency chose to eliminate them, Russ said.
Preferences are difficult to verify and make it harder to explain to other families why they were passed over, he said.
Like the Smileys, 35-year-old Charlene Brown-Priest couldnt wait. Last December, after an operation left her temporarily unable to work, Brown-Priest landed in a homeless shelter with her 17-year-old daughter, Kenya Brown.
The family had been living above a storefront church near 61st Street and Vernon Avenue in Woodlawn. Brown-Priest said she could barely cover the rent with her $8.25-an-hour job as a full-time security guard.
The $400 per month apartment had no running water, no working toilets and mice running everywhere, Brown-Priest said. Living there was six months of hell, but it was still a place to put our heads.
She said she added her name to the CHA waiting list in December, then squatted in a Taylor apartment with her daughter and her husband, Stanley Priest.
This is heaven, Kenya Brown said, standing in the sparsely furnished, but clean and newly painted, two-bedroom apartment. Weve got heat over here. It is so good to have a flush toilet again, she said.
The CHA threw the family out the same day as the Smileys, forcing them to double up with friends, Brown-Priest said.
Robert Taylor isnt the only CHA development with available, vacant apartments. Alfreda Moore, 20, wants to live in the Cabrini Rowhouses on the Near North Side. Her 6-year-old son, Ramone, attends the nearby Richard E. Byrd Community Academy, at 363 W. Hill St. They now live with 10 other people in her aunts one-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park, but in mid-April she said she was planning to move to a homeless shelter.
Getting a subsidized unit would allow her to finish high school and continue working as a stocker at a Gap clothing store. In March, Moore started taking GED classes with Jobs for Youth, a non-profit job placement service at 50 E. Washington Blvd.
When she first applied for a CHA apartment in June 1998, Moore said officials told her they didnt have any available units. But I walk around here and see vacant units, she said. After CHA officials told her they lost her application, Moore said she reapplied on May 11, 1999, and received a waiting list number in January.
CHA records show 120 rowhouse units are vacant. About 80 percent cant be leased because of leaky roofs or lead-based paint that must be removed, said Charles Price, development manager for the Cabrini Rowhouse Resident Management Corp., a resident group that manages the homes.
Price said it is difficult to rent the remaining units because the occupancy department sends him only five to 10 applicants a month. Russ of the CHA said those complaints are one reason the CHA is moving toward site-based waiting lists, kept by each development, instead of one general waiting list. Each applicant can then sign up for as many as three lists, said Russ, who added the change was still a few months away.
As CHA buildings are closed or demolished, displaced families will move into the private housing market, where theyll compete for affordable apartments with applicants now on the Section 8 waiting list.
To qualify for Section 8, a renters income must be less than 80 percent of the Chicago areas median income$63,800 for a family of four. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income as rent; the government pays the rest.
After HUD took over the CHA in 1995, the department hired CHAC Inc., a subsidiary of a Washington D.C.-based private firm, to administer the Section 8 program. CHAC officials dispensed with the old waiting list, saying it was badly managed, and started over.
In a two-week period in July 1997, CHAC received 104,162 applications, then randomly selected 35,000 for the list. About 2,000 Section 8 subsidies become available each year through turnover, said Jennifer Lee ONeil, CHACs deputy director. At that pace, the company will never reach the end of the list and will probably compile a new list “in a couple of years,” she said.
Section 8 recipients typically have 120 days to find housing. Those who fail are removed from the list.
Yet few affordable apartments are available, according to the 1999 Regional Rental Market Analysis, sponsored by HUD, the CHA and the city of Chicago. The study, released last November, found 192,000 extremely low-income families living without a federal or city housing subsidy, but only 38,700 affordable units available to them. Each apartment rented by a Section 8 tenant must meet federal Housing Quality Standards, but 27.7 percent of Chicago rental units are in poor condition, the study found.
Russ said success can best be gauged by the percentage of families that find housing with Section 8 subsidies. If that percentage declines, that would be a serious warning, he said.
CHAC officials said displaced tenants receiving subsidies and those families coming off the waiting list have success rates of 99 percent and 78 percent, respectively.
In addition, thousands of families have applied to waiting lists for Section 8 buildings or developments that signed contracts with the federal government to provide affordable housing. In return for offering subsidized units, the government gave the landlords federal loans, mortgage insurance or other tax breaks. Cook County alone has 335 project-based developments, with about 35,427 units, including senior and disabled housing.
Most buildings have their own waiting lists, and applicants can apply at many developments. Most face long waits, property managers and owners told the Reporter. Weve got people who have been on the waiting list since some of our buildings were built about 12 years ago, said William Moorehead, president and chief executive officer of Moorehead and Associates, 833 N. Orleans St. The firm manages nine federally subsidized projects in Chicago, HUD records show.
The Reporter surveyed 194 Cook County developments with a total of 25,345 units. Of the 149 developments offering family housing, 98 have closed their lists.