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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chicago Inside Stories : CHA and Section 8 Waiting Lists

From the September 28, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reporter
By: Brian J. Rogal

Families Still Waiting on CHA, Section 8 Lists

Desperate for a place to live after losing their apartment in February, 45-year-old Mary Smiley and four of her children, ages 9 to 19, took a risk. Without a lease or permission, the family moved into a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise at 5247 S. Federal St., in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development.

They occupied a vacant, though rehabbed apartment on the 9th floor. Smiley purchased a new door lock for $5 and set up house in the heated rooms. At least, she thought, her family was saving the new cabinets and fixtures from being stripped by thieves.

Then, on March 6, Chicago police officers arrested Smiley for trespassing, along with three of her children, her son-in-law, and two family friends who had moved into the three-bedroom unit, she said. Released the next day, Smiley and her children crammed into her aunt's home in the South Side's Washington Park neighborhood.

Though she did not like the idea of squatting in a CHA unit, Smiley said her family had no choice. "We'd have been in the street, no doubt about it," she said.

The Smileys are more than another story about Chicagoans living on the edge of homelessness. They are among 29,715 families on the waiting list for CHA housing. Most are classified as extremely low-income–"earning less than $19,500 a year for a family of four.

Smiley said she first put her name on the list in 1993. She is still waiting. She has spent a longer and equally fruitless time on the Section 8 waiting list, waiting for a federal rent subsidy to help her pay for an apartment in the private housing market.

Smiley said she signed up in 1975, but did not know she had to reapply when a new list opened to applicants in 1997. The Section 8 waiting list now totals 29,687 families.

Thousands more wait for apartments in Cook County's 335 developments and buildings that receive federal subsidies. And more waiting lists are kept by non-profit community development corporations that build affordable housing.

City and federal housing officials can't say how many families are on the numerous waiting lists, since applicants can sign up on more than one list. For these families, the promise of subsidized housing is becoming more remote every day, an analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows.

The CHA's Plan for Transformation, approved Feb. 5 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will sharply reduce Chicago's public housing stock, offering little hope for those on the agency's waiting list.

CHA officials also expect to displace at least 6,000 current public housing families and send them into a Section 8 housing market already in crisis. Those residents will get housing subsidies without having to join the various Section 8 waiting lists.

In April 1999, the Smileys moved into an apartment in the South Side's Woodlawn neighborhood. Smiley's companion, Ralph Seldon, paid most of the $600 monthly rent. But in October, a brain disorder left Seldon partially paralyzed. The family faced eviction.

Smiley found the empty Taylor units after visiting a free food pantry in the development. But the family barely had settled into their new home when workers, accompanied by Chicago police officers, sealed the apartment with steel doors and windows–"with Smiley's belongings inside. "I only had 30 minutes," she said. "That's how much time they gave me to get my kids and leave."

And with her prospects of finding a legitimate apartment through the CHA worse than ever, Smiley said she would risk arrest again if another Taylor unit was available.
"That's how desperate I am," she said.

Still Open
The CHA's 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 CHA's 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 couldn't 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. "We've 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 isn't 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 aunt's 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 didn't 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" can't 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.

Stiff Competition
As CHA buildings are closed or demolished, displaced families will move into the private housing market, where they'll compete for affordable apartments with applicants now on the Section 8 waiting list.

To qualify for Section 8, a renter's income must be less than 80 percent of the Chicago area's 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 O'Neil, CHAC's 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. "We've 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.

No Guarantee
An open waiting list is no guarantee of shelter, housing providers say. Voice of the People, 1456 W. Montrose Ave., a non-profit developer that owns and operates four Section 8 buildings in the North Side's Uptown neighborhood, has an open list with about 500 families, said Property Manager Ed Kulik. The buildings have a total of 97 units, all currently full.

Depending on family size and availability, the wait can be "six months to six years," he said, adding that "people come in every day."

And the number of Section 8 buildings may be shrinking. In fiscal year 2000, 87 Cook County contracts will expire, HUD records show. Of those, owners of 68 contracts have notified HUD they will remain in the program and 15 have not yet decided. Owners of four contracts–"all in Chicago–"have opted out of the program, HUD officials said.

While federal officials move to renegotiate expiring contracts, many housing activists and low-income renters worry that building owners may find it more profitable to leave the program.

If owners opt out of the program, their tenants still qualify for Section 8 subsidies, said Janet Smith, assistant professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But owners can raise the rent above the levels set by their expired Section 8 contracts. Additional tenant subsidies may not cover the difference.

Eddie Moore, 85, a retired cabdriver, lived for 14 years in a Section 8 unit, the 178-unit Country Club Apartments at 6930 S. South Shore Drive. He paid $368 per month. In 1998, the owner paid off the federal loan and sold the building. The new owner would not accept Section 8 subsidies, and he and other low-income tenants were forced to leave.

Moore said he looked at 10 to 12 places, but "I couldn't find an apartment in the neighborhood. I'd go there with the voucher and some said they didn't take vouchers." His Section 8 subsidy expired after 60 days, and Moore is now struggling to pay the entire $550 rent for his Hyde Park apartment.

Hidden Applicants
The widening gap between the number of poor renters and the affordable housing available is of special concern to Chicago's Latinos, who have been shut out of subsidized housing for decades, said Carlos DeJesus, executive director of Latinos United, a non-profit advocacy group. The organization filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the CHA and HUD in 1994, charging the agencies with discrimination.

According to the 1990 census, Latinos made up 21.7 percent of Chicago residents earning below the federal poverty line–"$13,359 for a family of four. But in 1995, only 265 of the 21,605 occupied CHA units–"1.2 percent–"were rented to Latinos, court documents show. As of March 31, 1995, Latinos had received 302 of the 15,664 Section 8 subsidies, about 1.9 percent of the total.

Under the July 1995 court settlement with HUD, Latinos United compiled a waiting list of more than 14,930 Section 8 applicants. Half of those families were allowed to jump ahead of the 35,000 applicants selected by CHAC in 1997. By October, about 1,549 Latinos had successfully rented Section 8 apartments, said O'Neil, CHAC's deputy director. The 7,068 applicants still on the list will get one out of every four subsidies that become available, she said.

To add Latinos to the CHA waiting list, the Spanish Coalition for Housing, a non-profit activist group hired by the CHA, collected about 11,000 public housing applications, said Hector Gamboa, the coalition's program coordinator.

Reynalda Rodriguez, who applied through the coalition on March 31, finds it "really hard to pay the rent" for the Logan Square apartment she shares with her 5-year-old son, mother and stepfather. Rodriguez, 38, earns $800 per month as a temporary census worker. Along with her parents' income, she can barely cover the $600 rent and her other bills.

Rodriguez would prefer one of the CHA's 134 scattered-site units that dot her Northwest Side neighborhood. "I wouldn't feel comfortable in a high-rise," she said.

But she may have a long wait. Families can expect to wait from two to 10 years for housing, said Naomi Orozco, an assistant property manager for the Housing Resource Center, a non-profit organization hired by the CHA to manage scattered-site housing in seven North Side community areas. And the CHA plans to demolish 236 scattered-site units, shrinking the available homes from 2,922 to 2,686. Russ of the CHA said scattered-site construction might continue, but he could not provide specifics.

Scarce Supply
The 1999 rental market study found the Chicago area's rent levels were rising faster than inflation. From 1998 to 1999, prices increased 2 percent, while Chicago rents jumped 4.3 percent, the study found.

The Chicago Department of Housing's five-year affordable housing plan, released in 1998, recognized the city's "rental housing needs have grown more serious." Welfare reform and changes in public housing will "widen the gap between demand and the scarce supply" of affordable housing for low-income renters, the plan stated.

The city has set a goal of raising almost $1.3 billion for affordable housing from 1999 to 2003, up from $927 million from 1993 to 1998. And while housing activists have applauded the increase, few new units are being built for those who need them most–"extremely low-income families with children.

Of the 1,467 affordable units funded by housing department loans and grants in 1999, only 21 were for families earning less than 30 percent of median income–"$19,500 for a family of four, according to the Chicago Rehab Network, a coalition of 43 non-profit housing organizations. And no family units were built for those earning less than 15 percent, or $9,570.

Spending from the city's Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes rents for low-income families, grew from $20 million to $30 million under the five-year plan. Last year, 2,054 families received subsidies, up from 1,603 in 1998, housing department records show.

Jean Butzen, president of Lakefront SRO, a non-profit affordable housing developer, said she is "happy with the direction [the city] is moving in." But, she added, "we still don't have anything approaching the need."

And Brown-Priest, who returned to work in February, did get enough money together to rent an apartment in Englewood owned by one of her husband's relatives. But her finances remain tight.

"It's family, and they're going to help me," she said. For now, she only pays $250 a month, but the apartment has no heat, and the family only stays there on the weekends to make repairs.
She expects to start paying the full rent by August, and with utilities, her bills will climb to about $650 a month, about half her present salary.

But Brown-Priest is determined to keep a roof over her family. "I used to work two jobs," she said. "I'll find me another job. My father always told me I'm a survivor, and I will survive."

# http://www.chicagoreporter.com/news/2007/09/families-still-waiting-cha-section-8-lists

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