While Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was at a pricey downtown breakfast event on homelessness, city housing activists and homeless families protested outside Thursday morning citing the mayor's "failure to support reform of the Chicago Housing Authority."
"Under Mayor Emanuel's watch, the CHA has failed to release 13,500 available housing vouchers, left thousands of public housing units vacant, stopped rebuilding public housing and stockpiled over $432 million in surplus cash at the expense of housing for thousands," said Paul Burns with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and the Chicago Housing Initiative, which organized today's protest.
"And yet today, the mayor shows up to a breakfast about ending homelessness," he continued. "This is hypocrisy, and we will not be silent ... The truth is that until the mayor begins talking about reforming the CHA and setting clear standards for the agency, he is not talking about ending homelessness."
Emanuel was at the Chicago Alliance's "10th Annual Breakfast with the Mayor," held at the Chase Tower, located at 10 S. Dearborn St. The event brought together "public, private, and social service communities" to "celebrate the collective work accomplished towards homelessness prevention during the year," according to an announcement. Ticket prices ranged from $250 to $5,000.
The protesters are upset with Emanuel, who appoints the CHA's board and CEO, because he has not endorsed an ordinance introduced by 13 aldermen in September that would provide the Chicago City Council with greater oversight of the CHA. The ordinance has the support of the Chicago Housing Initiative.
The Keeping the Promise ordinance was introduced following a report by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which found that the CHA built up large cash reserves over recent years primarily by holding onto millions of dollars in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.
Each year between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued an average of 13,534 fewer housing vouchers than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded, the report found. And between 2008 and 2012, the CHA accumulated $432 million in reserves.
Meanwhile, there were some 33,000 families waiting for CHA voucher assistance as of September of 2013, according to the think tank's report.
"How can the mayor be at a breakfast to end homelessness and his agency -- that he appoints the board, he appoints the CEO -- is sitting on half a billion dollars to end homelessness, and they're not doing anything about it," said Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center. "If he followed our ordinance, homelessness would be reduced by 12 percent. So if he was serious about (tackling homelessness), he would support the ordinance, and not water it down."
Under the proposed Keeping the Promise ordinance, the CHA would have to provide the city council with quarterly reports on, among other things, vacant and offline housing, its voucher utilization rate and progress building replacement public housing.
The CHA would also have to increase the number of annual available housing vouchers and meet voucher funding utilization benchmarks. Failure to meet the requirements "will result in immediate suspension of new city funding awards to CHA projects," the ordinance states.
Additionally, the measure would enforce the CHA's commitments to rebuild replacement housing and require one-for-one replacement of standing low-income housing units.
Leah Levinger, the Chicago Housing Initiative's executive director, said the group has met with the Emanuel administration to discuss the proposal.
"They initially indicated openness to the proposals or to solving the same problems through an intergovernmental agreement," she said. "This last meeting [last week] they had passed it back entirely to the housing authority to self police, and that's been the problem all these years is that the authority is not capable of self policing, and we need mayoral oversight and we need city council oversight."
Levinger said the Emanuel administration is "open to publishing quarterly reports online" involving the CHA's progress on housing matters. However, the housing activists stressed that more reforms are needed.
"The housing authority consistently says there's a plan for this whole $432 million, but when we ask what that plan is, they're not able to provide any follow-up information or any line-item detail about it," Levinger said. "They're just allowed to make numbers up, and no one's calling them on it, and with greater city council oversight that would happen."
A mayoral spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.
CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to today's protest:
With a firm commitment to transparency, CHA looks forward to working with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago as the agency continues to strive toward its goal of expanding housing options for low-income families.
CHA works with a variety of key stakeholders to facilitate key communication. CHA has met with a host of city officials and housing advocacy groups regarding how the agency is working to build strong, vibrant communities throughout Chicago.
With respect to CHA reserves, our goal is to ensure that the agency continues to work our list of key development and capital construction initiatives that will draw down the reserves.
We also expect we will spend the reserve balance down to a healthy level by the end of 2015.
At the protest, Rev. Michael Hodges, pastor at Beersheba Bible Church Ministries and a member of the Bronzeville Minister's Alliance of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, urged Emanuel to support the Keeping the Promise ordinance.
"Mayor, you have plenty of power to change the situation of thousands of people today, and we're here asking you to do something," he stressed.
Here's more from Hodges:
Chicagoan Linda Diaz, a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, lost her home to foreclosure and is currently on the CHA's housing voucher wait list. It is unfortunate, she explained, that the CHA is "sitting on all those vouchers."
"So far, all I see in front of me are roadblocks called the CHA," she said. "I haven't been able to find a market rate apartment that I can afford, and a housing voucher would help me to be able to afford a place of my own, but I know they're hard to come by ... The CHA shouldn't be playing with people's lives."