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CHA residents want housing agency to supply more jobs

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The Chicago Housing Authority has more on its plate than just providing low-income housing. It’s in the employment game, too. In fact, it’s got a program called Section 3 that’s supposed to hire residents or their businesses. There should be plenty of work for people in that program. After all, CHA’s had more demolition and rebuilding than any public housing agency in the country, and that demand’s created scores of contracts and jobs over the past decade.

But many residents say they are being passed over for Section 3 opportunities.

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development started the Section 3 program in 1968, at the apex of the civil rights movement. The idea was to provide more than just shelter for families – the agency wanted to provide economic independence for people in public housing and in surrounding communities.

Locally, the Chicago Housing Authority hires Section 3 employees directly, or it works with contractors who then hire Section 3 participants. On paper, that’s how it’s supposed to work, but some people who stand to benefit are unsatisfied.

Section 3 is personal for William Harper.

HARPER: I’m 33 years old and I’m born and raised from Altgeld Gardens.

More than that, Harper is vice president of Meyers Corporation, a business he runs with his mother, who’s a resident at Altgeld, a sprawling public housing development on the southern edge of the city.

Harper’s company has a contract to landscape at Altgeld.

HARPER: I’ve done well with CHA. I just want to learn how I can establish a private property partnership.

Harper would like his family’s Section 3 business to get a permanent contract with CHA, one that would allow him to keep people hired all the time.

Instead …

HARPER: I look around at times and I see contractors out here and I wonder how they got the opportunity to get the job. So I go to the management office and I’m asking because I’m aware because this is how my business is going to stay open – by me providing my services. If I don’t have no services to provide, then it’s not a business.

Given the dreadful economy and the billion-plus dollar CHA renovations, residents feel they are not getting their cut of Section 3 work. Critics of the program share the same outlook.

ambi fades

WHITFIELD: The statute has no teeth and HUD does not appear to want to make it a priority. There’s a lot of talk about it…

Robert Whitfield is the attorney for the umbrella CHA tenants’ group. He used to work for HUD and says Section 3 is one area that doesn’t have stern regulations like other fair housing mandates in the agency.

WHITFIELD: There is no enforcement provision for HUD to do anything as far as referring it to the attorney general or any of the other sanctions that accompany all the other requirements that HUD enforces.

Whitfield says residents need to be able to sue.

WHITFIELD: It’s almost meaningless as far as residents? What is she or he going to do if he’s not hired, if he can’t go to court? Court has always been the mechanism for enforcing any statute.

CHA’s track record on Section 3 is a mixed bag. Several years ago, 30 percent of new hires were designated Section 3 – the federal minimum. But in 2008 and 2009, for example, more than 70 percent of CHA new hires were Section 3. Still, in those two years, hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded in contracts, yet none of those were Section 3-owned businesses.

Mary Howard is a vice present at CHA. She says a few years ago the agency took a closer look at Section 3 practices and made revisions to hold contractors responsible.

MOORE: If you were giving CHA a grade on its Section 3 program, what would you give it?

HOWARD: Quite honestly, in terms of compliance, I’d give us an A because we are compliant with the regulation. As to whether or not there’s no question residents have access to these opportunities, maybe a B-.

Howard says CHA has created a database for job matching but needs to do better on getting resident-owned businesses in the mix. And in the contract jobs, residents need to work the duration, not just stints here and there, as is the case now. But Howard cautions that Section 3 isn’t the only antidote for joblessness.

HOWARD: We don’t want anyone to sit and just wait for a Section 3 job. If this is the door into the work world for somebody that we want to make sure we get them there. But if someone does not get a Section 3 job, we want to make sure they are aware our providers are out there ready to help them obtain any employment or educational opportunity.

According to the law, HUD holds CHA accountable. But Section 3 has been tricky for HUD nationally. Two years ago only 20 percent of public housing agencies reported their Section 3 activity; today it’s 80 percent.

TRASVINA: This is an area that has long been underdressed and Section 3 has been underused for years.

John Trasvina is HUD’s assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

TRASVINA: There are shortcomings in just the way the statue is written. It’s a difficult vehicle to do something that’s critically important. It’s important for HUD dollars to go not just into the buildings and infrastructure. It’s important to go into the people who live there and Section 3 promotes self-sufficiency.

Trasvina says HUD is working with Congress to amend Section 3’s language. In the meantime, HUD plans to dig deeper into Chicago’s policies. Attorney Robert Whitfield has formally requested an audit of CHA’s compliance. Meanwhile, CHA residents with a stake in the program are livid. At a recent CHA public meeting, they took turns at the microphone berating housing officials.

RESIDENT MONTAGE: Why you continue to hire them over and over again and they’re not hiring Section 3? So if you have any inkling of trying to solve this problem, you need to address it with us. The reason why I’m here, I came to see if anybody can tell me why nobody that stayed in the projects gets jobs.

The riled-up crowd had to be calmed. CHA board chair James Reynolds told the crowd Section 3 is the most important issue in the agency.

REYNOLDS: I understand the frustration and I’m going to see if we can implement a few changes.

Reynolds announced he’d like to change procurement so that some CHA work can bypass the formal bidding process.

This would include work such as landscaping and snow removal. Then CHA could choose to hire residents at competitive prices. Residents greeted his comments with a grateful round of applause.

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