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‘Planning for demolition’ at Altgeld Gardens

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Over objections from residents – and despite assurances that residents will be consulted – CHA is submitting an annual plan to HUD that includes $7.3 million for “planning for demolition” of one-third of the public housing units at Altgeld Gardens.

The move comes as the citywide CHA resident leaders’ organization has called for a moratorium on demolition and for rehabbing unoccupied units at Altgeld and at other remaining traditional developments.

It comes as the need for low-income housing continues to grow, while CHA public housing production has slowed dramatically, and the city produces a handful of low-income units annually under its affordable housing plan.

And it comes as housing activists who’ve exposed CHA’s receipt of HUD operating funds for unoccupied housing units are revealing a new no-strings funding stream from HUD – capital subsidies which continue for years for units that have been demolished.

Plan first, talk later

On Tuesday, the CHA board approved the annual plan under HUD’s Moving To Work program [2].  According to the plan: “After reassessing future developments needs at [Altgeld Gardens and Murray Homes], CHA has determined that it will undertake planning for the demolition of the remaining 648 non-rehabilitated unoccupied units.”

CHA has budgeted $7.3 million for “planning for demolition” at Altgeld, according to the document.  Rehab of 1,300 units at the Far South Side development was completed in 2010.

Last week People for Community Recovery [3], an organization of Altgeld residents, received assurance from CHA chief Charles Woodyard that no demolition would occur prior to a community planning process, scheduled to kick off with a town hall meeting next month.  Woodyard responded after the group handed Mayor Emanuel a letter asking him to intervene to save Altgeld’s housing, said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of PCR.

“It would be more reassuring for us if they took [funding for demolition] out of the plan,” she said.

“It’s backwards,” said Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative [4], a coalition of community organizations working with tenants in federally-backed housing.  “Why not have the conversation first, before you submit a plan to HUD?”

“There’s no evidence these buildings are not structurally sound or that it’s not cost effective to rehab,” she added.  “Until there is, demolition seems senseless and wasteful.”

Moratorium

The CHA’s Central Advisory Council [5], comprising elected representatives of public housing developments, calls for a moratorium on demolition in a recent report [6] outlining recommendations for the current “recalibration” of CHA’s Plan for Transformation.

Citing decreases in federal funding and a growing shortage of low-income housing, CAC calls on CHA to prioritize preservation of public housing, “specifically rehabilitation and reconfiguration of existing CHA units.”  Rehab is significantly more cost-effective and involves far fewer development hurdles, CAC notes.

CAC president Myra King was the only CHA commissioner to vote against the MTW plan Tuesday.

Among many other recommendations, CAC calls for completing rehabilitation of Altgeld Gardens, along with the Cabrini Rowhouses and Lathrop Homes.  Given the housing market crash, it calls for developing mixed-income communities consisting of affordable and public housing.

The report notes the growing need for affordable and low-income housing.  In 2009, 54 percent of Chicago tenants were rent-burdened, 19 percent more than in 1999, when CHA launched its Plan for Transformation.  With current trends, the proportion of rent-burdened households could be as high as 63 percent by 2020.

The majority of rent-burdened households, at risk of homelessness, are extremely low-income, making less than $20,000 a year, CAC notes.  These are the families CHA should be serving.

Huge housing shortage

Meanwhile, the shortage of affordable housing is growing. In 2009 it was estimated at 130,000 units, up 10 percent in just four years.  One new factor: between 2009 and 2011, 17,000 apartment buildings with 52,000 units went into foreclosed.

Of course, there’s the 60,000 on CHA waiting lists — and the many more who applied to the limited waiting list slots.

On top of that, as Steve Bogira has reported in the Chicago Reader [7], poverty rates continue to grow in Chicago.  Child poverty is up to 35.8 percent this year, and more than one in ten Chicagoans living in extreme poverty, with incomes less than half the federal poverty level.

The Tribune reports [8] that low-wage sectors are growing while high-paying industries continue to shed jobs, and a recent report from the Action Now Institute and Women Employed [9]found that nearly a third of Chicagoans work low-wage jobs, not paid enough to cover basic necessities.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that 97,000 Chicagoans, including some 15,000 CPS students, were homeless at some point last year, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless [10].  And as the Chicago Reporter recently documented, [11] Chicago’s homeless include people who are on CHA’s waiting list.

Still, Chicago can afford to sacrifice 648 units of low-income housing at Altgeld, and possibly hundreds more at Cabrini and Lathrop.  How do those numbers stack up against affordable housing production here – and against the shortfall of 130,000 affordable units?

Housing production has slowed to a trickle at CHA – in part because the agency has stopped rehabbing traditional developments.  Next year CHA projects adding 345 units to its portfolio; last year it planned for 200 new units.

(That doesn’t include project-based vouchers, which HUD has allowed CHA to count toward its housing production since 2010.  Advocates point out that public housing units guarantee decades of low-income housing, while vouchers involve shorter-term contracts with private landlords.)

Net loss

In 2011, the last year for which final numbers [12] are available, CHA produced 432 new public housing units and demolished 909 units.

How about the city’s affordable housing plan [13]?  Last year the city reported producing 2,054 new multifamily affordable housing units, separate from ongoing state rental subsidies.  But according to the Chicago Rehab Network’s analysis [14], very few of these were for low-income families.

Only 14 of those units were affordable for families with incomes below 30 percent of the area median income.  An additional 43 were affordable for families with incomes between 31 and 50 percent of AMI.

Under its plan to end homelessness [15], meanwhile, the city averaged about 325 units of permament supportive housing a year over the past decade.

With numbers like these, you’d need a compelling reason to tear down 648 potentially habitable units – especially when community members oppose the demolition, as scores of Altgeld residents made very clear at the CHA’s hearing on its annual plan last month.

CHI has charged that CHA has a deliberate policy of limiting and reducing public housing populations in order to reduce its legal obligation to provide replacement housing in communities slated for redevelopment.  Previously CHI revealed that thousands of habitable units are kept vacant by CHA — and under a special arrangement dating to the start of the Plan for Transformation, HUD operating subsidies continue to flow to units whether they’re occupied or not.

Now CHI has uncovered evidence that HUD continues to provide tens of millions of dollars in capital subsidies for units that have been demolished.  The money is supposed to fund replacement housing, but there are no reporting requirements and no requirements for specific numbers of units delivered in specific time periods, Levinger said.

“It’s yet another ill-defined funding stream,” she said.  “It’s a lot of dollars with no strings.”

According to CHI, in 2011 CHA received $39 million in capital funding for units that had been demolished, some years earlier.

“CHA could demolish 648 units at Altgeld and get [capital] dollars for the next ten years, at the same level they got while [the properties] were standing, and never spend that money – and nobody at HUD would bat an eye,” Levinger said.