When is a Budget Surplus a Bad Thing?

When it represents federal housing funds that are deliberately going unspent to avoid providing public and low-income housing.

Eve Ewing’s report in The New Republic identifies another looming scandal in Chicago, this time in the Chicago Housing Authority. That agency has been acting as though the middle word in its name (and its mandate) doesn’t exist, which is a problem.

For low-income people in Chicago, housing options are scarce. Ewing notes that approximately 280,000 people entered a lottery to get on a waiting list for CHA housing. A lottery, for a waiting list, which is 30,000 names deep for public housing units and 50,000 names deep for housing vouchers. Reaching the top  of the waiting list then entitles an applicant to wait more, between one and five years, for screening. Ewing notes that one applicant, whose use of a wheelchair makes it difficult for her to find suitable private housing and encourages landlords to discriminate against her, has been waiting for a CHA unit for 15 years. Another frustrated applicant says

“They operate at a level that just ensures that so many people are gonna be homeless.”

Such problems suggest a problem common to other public sector agencies in the age of the Tea Party–austerity budgets that have cut staffing and operational spending well into the bone. The IRS, for example, has been operating for years without the resources to answer its telephones or perform the basic task of investigating tax cheating and collecting the revenues legally owed to the government, notwithstanding that each dollar spent to fund such activity yields a 600% return in the form of tax collections. Indeed, the Chicago Housing Authority is running on a deficit of $430 million, which makes it impossible to even…

Oh, whoops, no. That’s a surplus of $430 million.

Wait, what? Yeah. $430 million in the couch cushions at CHA.

As Ewing reports, this surplus has derived from one principal source: a grant initiated in 2000 by the HUD for Chicago’s participation in a pilot Moving to Work program. Among other things, this program offered funds, with minimal federal oversight, for rehabilitation of about 25,000 units of public housing. The first phase of the program, demolishing 18,000 units most prominently associated with the Robert Taylor Homes and parts of the Cabrini-Green low-income community left standing after the CHAs 1990s wave of demolitions, proceeded apace. The problem, as Ewing describes, is that

the pace to rebuild or renovate has been slow—and particularly slow since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Between 2007 and 2010, the CHA rebuilt between 700 and 900 units each year. In 2011, that number plummeted by about half, to 424. The following year, only 112 units were built. Only 49 new units were constructed last year.

Some of the cleared land has been reallocated to private development, and in other cases, the CHA has simply not acted to replace lost housing units. CHA is also not returning usable units to circulation after eviction or vacancy.

J.L. Gross, a veteran with a disability who has lived in Lathrop Homes on the North Side of the city for 26 years, has seen this strategy in his own community. “As recently as a week ago, two people were evicted from Lathrop,” he said. “They [lived in] habitable apartments. They are now boarded up… It’s a comedy of errors.” Such boarded-up units are categorized by the CHA as being “offline,” or unavailable to rent for a variety of reasons such as “maintenance” or “pending redevelopment.” As of this summer, about 16% of CHA units—a total of almost 3,500 units—were uninhabited.

Gross believes that the decision to leave them empty is a strategic step to facilitate the eventual eradication of public housing. “Out of 925 apartments, you only have 128 units that are being used, and that was either through attrition or forced eviction,” he said. “But now that the numbers are so low and CHA is not filling those vacant apartments, you have a reason to close down Lathrop.” He compares this pattern with the process of public school closure in Chicago, where schools were shut down for being underutilized. “It’s the same thing. Public schools and public housing… I’m fighting for Lathrop. It’s my community and that means more to me than anything.”

How is this happening? Ewing notes that Mayor Emanuel has the power to personally appoint executives to the CHA, and that he’s made appointments that, like his appointment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the CEO of the public schools, have raised questions about the appointees’ ethics and self-dealing. Historically speaking, I would take issue with Ewing’s implicit characterization of the situation as corruption (to be fair, that characterization is most directly promoted by the headline, which TNR may have added on its own in the interest of pinning a scandal to an embattled and controversial mayor) . It’s much more a part of a continuum of shifting low-income housing from the public to the subsidized-private sector, and, as Larry Vale argues in Purging the Poorest (University of Chicago, 2013), of a redefinition since the early 1990s of housing authorities’ missions from creating and managing public housing to eliminating it. As much as I’ve enjoyed kicking Mayor Rahm Emanuel while he’s been down (though, paraphrasing Hunter Thompson’s masterful Nixon eulogy, I’ve kicked him when he’s been up, too), this is a problem that’s much bigger than a single city housing authority under a neoliberal administration. As Vale notes, the 1990s launched a revision of public housing policy through multiple iterations of local enactment of federal policies, which culminated in the kind of programs the CHA has implemented. While public housing is often associated with the Great Society as a provision of housing for the poorest of the urban poor, Vale shows that today’s non-housing housing policy has significant antecedents in the years between the New Deal and the Great Society, when local housing authorities envisioned housing as a social reform instrument to support the “worthy” poor, rather than the most economically disadvantaged. As Vale argues, this first wave of public housing

centered on selectivity and moral judgment… [a] moralist animus [that] has been reconstituted in much of US housing policy since 1990 (3)

Under the broad umbrella of the HOPE VI initiative in HUD, American public housing policy has shifted from the task of providing housing, Vale argues, to the task of reorganizing housing authorities around the demands of the marketplace, both in terms of the kinds of housing assistance they provide and, more importantly, the ways that they use public property to support private redevelopment interests. This is the historical trend that is most significant for understanding the problems with the CHA less as corruption and more as the logical extension of a set of policy directives. The extent to which CHA is willing to go not to supply public housing is astonishing–what public agency is funding its pension obligations ahead of schedule, at a point in time where other Chicago workers are getting aggressively stiffed?–which indicates a harmony of interest with both private actors and HUD policymakers. The CHA is following through on a host of Clinton/Gingrich era policies that have all led local housing authorities away from the business of providing housing.

The CHA was instrumental in advancing this shift through its troubled relationship to HUD and the federal government, as Vale’s account shows. After a 1995 Federal takeover of the CHA, the agency implemented even more aggressive plans to raze the Cabrini-Green complex just northwest of downtown than the CHA had previously contemplated. After a 1996 Near North Redevelopment Initiative was announced, without support from representatives of the Cabrini-Green community, the plan was denounced as “ethnic cleansing, Chicago-style,” as it proposed the demolition of more than 1,300 family-occupied apartments. Congress then mandated “viability tests” for federally-supported public housing. If vacancy rates exceeded 10% in large buildings, local housing authorities would be required to evaluate the costs of providing residents with vouchers, and pushed to demolish the buildings–a policy that led to 18,000 Chicago Housing Authority units being declared “nonviable” in 1997. And, while a consent decree negotiated with CHA tenants required the construction and setting aside of affordable, subsidized apartments in the private, market-rate successor developments on and around the Cabrini-Green site, developers have been able to establish screening criteria for settling low-income tenants that have resulted in about 80% of the applicants failing to meet the stated criteria. Setting aside units for subsidized low-income housing in what has otherwise been a land rush of epic proportions on Chicago’s near north side has not been the same thing as providing housing to low-income Chicagoans. As Vale notes,

Chicago’s broader urban development since the 1990s has been far more Trumpian than Teresan. Between 1995 and 2005, homeowners purchased more than $1.2 billion in residential property within two blocks of Cabrini-Green…. New Urbanist neighborhoods that have gradually superseded demolished public housing are part of a broader trend to reimage Chicago as a safe, green, and comfortable environment, especially for the middle class (282-283)

And, ultimately, the right-of-return promised by the CHA for displaced tenants has gone unfulfilled.

In Chicago, during the Plan for Transformation, 90 percent of CHA residents who were offered a right of return initially sought to exercise that right, rather than accept the one-time offer of permanent relocation using a HCV. Clearly, they believed that the CHA was going to offer them a desirable alternative that would enable them to remain in a neighborhood they valued. A dozen years later, however, only 11 percent of those families have gained a spot in one of the mixed-income communities that had long been so tantalizingly touted as the Plan’s policy centerpiece. And fewer than 25 percent of the right-of-return family households ended up receiving HCVs as their ultimate relocation option–even though this continues to be plugged by policymakers as the best exit strategy for nearly everyone…. Taken overall, despite the politically appealing rhetoric of the HCV and HOPE VI program, it is hard to vouch for genuine “housing choice” or to be certain that “housing opportunity” is indeed for “people everywhere.” (334-335)

And, for the last two decades, this orientation has been reasonably popular insofar as politically active and respected constituencies have approved it. Ronit Bezalel’s documentary Voices of Cabrini shows how residents in 1995 struggled against a prevailing tide of stigma against their community. Note how David Tkac, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s spokesperson for public housing redevelopment, felt empowered to present to a roomful of Cabrini residents a description of their own neighborhood as “not a pretty picture” while insisting that sketches of a new townhome development, illustrations notably lacking in their depictions of the presence of the poor, represented a desirable future (at 5:29):

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/8207992″>Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user1390257″>Ronit Bezalel</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

What’s noteworthy about the current state of the CHA is that the agency’s dereliction of duty has been blatant enough to lead some politicians and citizens to actually advocate for more public housing, though the Authority had clearly been counting on the assumption that the stigma attached to “the projects” would make its lack of action palatable. From Ewing’s account:

“It’s really a tale of two cities,” says Gross. “Public housing has been stereotyped as a gang infested entity, as people who are not willing to work, to pull their own weight. It’s a broad-brushes stereotype of what public housing is about. … I consider myself blessed and lucky. I’m humbled to be where I’m at. I’m truly thankful. …Every day I wake up, I’m a blessed individual. I want people to see my community as a good community.”

Unfortunately, the CHA has been riding that public perception and a set of institutional priorities at the federal level that place providing public housing at the bottom of the list since the 1990s.

As Vale memorably contends,

Urban renewal and public housing renewal are not just about clearing sites, but about clearing sights–a cleaning out of things that should not be seen (30)

In Chicago and in the US at large, the sights and sites in question are those occupied by an increasingly precarious group of the urban poor. Ewing notes that Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development visited Chicago in July and stated his “concern” about a housing authority that has amassed a middle-nine-figure surplus by abdicating its essential mission. That’s nice, but it indicates a profound lack of commitment on the part of Castro’s HUD predecessors and a lack of oversight powers on the part of the Department today to respond to such dereliction with concern rather than with demands, directives, or an outright takeover. One supposes that Castro may ask the CHA politely to actually build and provide some housing with all of the federal government’s money it’s been sitting on, but based on the last quarter century of policy, one wouldn’t expect much more.

And finally, one must ask how much sex Black women must withhold, and from whom, to compel the CHA to spend 430 million dollars of the public’s money on housing.

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