Eugene Jones Jr. is leaving his job as Chicago Housing Authority CEO two weeks earlier than anticipated.
CHA released a statement Tuesday announcing that Jones was stepping down immediately. Also on Tuesday, Jones was confirmed as the new head of the Atlanta Housing Authority. He will reportedly begin his new job in Atlanta on Oct. 7.
“As Mr. Jones embarks on his new position with the Atlanta Housing Authority, the City of Chicago thanks him for his service and wishes him well in this next chapter of his life. James L. Bebley will serve as Acting CEO while a permanent replacement is found. An active search is already underway for the next CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority,” a CHA spokesperson wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.
In a surprise move, Jones initially announced his resignation on Aug. 20. At that time, Jones released a statement that didn’t explain his sudden departure and indicated that he would remain on the job until Sept. 27. It read in part, “From bringing new investment to communities and forming innovative partnerships that led to the development of three co-located housing and libraries, the development of new community assets like grocery stores and recreational facilities and the settlement earlier this year of the landmark Gautreaux case, I leave knowing that the CHA is well-positioned for the future and is prepared to meet the housing needs of its residents and the communities across our city.”
Jones had served in the role for more than four years.
Residents and advocates lauded the plainspoken and accessible Jones for bringing stability to the public housing agency. Jones was CHA’s longest-serving leader in more than a decade. When Jones assumed the role in June 2015, he became the agency’s sixth CEO since 2005.
“I’m sad. I’m heartbroken,” said Francine Washington, a longtime CHA resident and board member. “He brought morale up for residents and staff.”
His departure leaves a vacuum at the top and comes on the heels of CHA board chair John Hooker resigning last month and former chief of staff José Alvarez leaving earlier this year to run Illinois Tollway.
Unlike a number of his predecessors, Jones came in with experience running public housing agencies, including those in Detroit and Toronto. One of his first moves as CEO was to settle litigation over the Cabrini row houses, which led to the end of a lawsuit and an agreement to rehab 40% of the units as public housing. He also soon set aside $5 million for Section 3, a federal program that’s supposed to provide jobs and contracts to public housing residents. A field office was established in 2017.
“We just lost the Michael Jordan of housing,” said J.R. Fleming, an activist and former Cabrini-Green resident. Fleming especially lauds Jones for his engagement and expansion of Section 3.
“He created a job program and kept our voices included in the program, making sure minority contractors had access,” Fleming said. “He didn’t look at the problem, but he looked at the solution.”
The total Section 3 contract award amount in 2018 was $127 million.
Other highlights under Jones’ tenure were co-locating housing with libraries and securing affordable properties on the North Side to give residents options outside of segregated neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. In addition, the federal court earlier this year approved a settlement in the Gautreaux case, a lawsuit that sought to end racial discrimination in CHA. The agreement lifts the 53 years of court oversight of CHA.
Jones came on board as CHA headed to the finish line of its ambitious billion-dollar-plus Plan for Transformation that’s torn down high rises and created mixed-income communities since 1999. Meanwhile, only a sliver of residents returned to the new mixed-income developments that replaced traditional public housing. On State Street, tracts of vacant land remain undeveloped where public housing once stood.
Redevelopment of the Harold Ickes Homes, near the South Loop, is underway. And this spring CHA announced plans to rebuild on the site of the former LeClaire Courts, near Midway Airport, with a jobs component. However, most public housing residents in Chicago live on Section 8 vouchers. Under that federal housing subsidy program, they rent in the private market, often in racially and economically segregated communities. And CHA has been criticized for not spending its cash-flush reserves.
When Jones announced his resignation in late August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded with a statement thanking him for his service.
Washington said the next CEO needs to listen to people like Jones did and have public housing experience. Lightfoot needs to “not put somebody there because they need a job,” Washington said.