CHA, housing activists clash over vacancy numbers

September 20, 2011

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Local housing activists and the Chicago Housing Authority are quibbling about the number of vacant units the agency has available. The Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI) is a coalition that wants CHA to make more apartments available - now.

The group put out a report that says there are thousands of CHA vacant units. CHA officials dispute the numbers. Leah Levinger is an organizer for the coalition and said the report stresses the urgency to provide adequate housing. She said their info came from CHA.

“We didn’t pull this out of thin air. This is their data that they have reported publicly that’s all hidden in plain sight. So I think the issue is that what they call a vacant unit is not what any ordinary, average American would call a vacant unit,” Levinger said.

Meanwhile, CHA officials counter that the agency’s occupancy rate is 98 percent. The housing agency doesn’t count apartments that are idle and need rehabbing.

“The CHA has to go by a plan,” said CHA’s Jadine Chou. “There are other factors that have to be considered – including financials, operations. Again, to rush the process we understand the urgency but at the same time we have to be very deliberate in how we approach the planning process.” Chou said whenever units are available, they are leased, and HUD approves that process. By 2015, CHA is supposed to have 25,000 units finished.

But Levinger said CHA doesn’t accurately count developments like Lathrop Homes, which has hundreds of vacancies. CHA only counts apartments that are on line and in good condition.

“Our hope is that conversations that start where the public is more aware of what’s happening now might change the way the CHA thinks about the works that it does. Simple policy changes that could be made: we don’t relocate families and don’t freeze leasing until there’s a plan for a development and financing,” Levinger said.

At the Chicago Housing Authority board meeting Tuesday, members voted to scale back on credit card use.

There are no more credit cards for senior staff. All expenses must be submitted for reimbursement. And purchasing items such as flowers is not allowed.

The housing authority policies are aligned with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s city spending crackdown.

CHA officials came under fire after certain expenses were revealed earlier this summer. They included using credit cards for meals at high-end restaurants, gifts and red-light camera tickets.

The federal housing authority had said CHA was in compliance.

CHA declined to comment. In a statement, officials said they worked with the mayor’s office to update their policies to be in compliance.