CHA plans move away from resident councils

The Chicago Housing Authority is seeking permission from the federal government to disband some of the elected resident councils that have represented public housing tenants for more than 35 years.
 
The changes would apply to CHA residents living in mixed-income communities. Under the agency's new plan residents would be expected to take complaints to neighborhood associations. A CHA-appointed ombudsman would resolve issues those associations could not handle.
 
The plan raises questions about whether an ombudsman paid by the CHA can truly be independent, says Nicki Bazer, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. More fundamentally, opponents worry that replacing elected leaders with a CHA official threatens to silence residents’ voices.
 
“This is really about the rights of tenants to organize and select their own leaders,” says Bazer, who works with the foundation's Housing Law Project.
 
The kind of neighborhood organizations the CHA plan envisions as a first line of assistance so far don’t exist in any of the mixed-income communities, Bazer says. The ones that do exist are for homeowners and exclude CHA residents because they rent.
 
CHA spokesman Bryan Zises says the plan will benefit residents because “there’s a high-level senior staff person who can resolve issues directly … rather than having to go through a layer of other tenants.”
 
There will be a public hearing on the changes 6 p.m. Tuesday at University Center, 525 S. State St., in the Lake Room on the mezzanine level. Citizens can comment on the plan until March 28.
 
Federal housing regulations require the CHA to have a representation system, and local advisory councils have filled that need since 1971.
 
Since then, the CHA has changed significantly, shedding traditional public housing units in favor of mixed-income projects, which are the centerpiece of the agency's $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation. Nearly a third of the agency's housing units will be in mixed-income developments when the Plan for Transformation is completed in 2015.
 
Robin Snyderman, vice president of community development at Metropolitan Planning Council, says it was clear the system of representation would need to change along with the CHA.
 
“Everyone knew from the get-go, even though it wasn’t in writing, that the system was going to need to evolve,” she says.
 
The plan says the ombudsman’s office will field concerns specifically related to public housing which can’t be fixed by a neighborhood association. The ombudsman’s office must be available to answer calls, letters and e-mails from residents at least 20 hours a week and must forward residents’ concerns to the Central Advisory Council, the CHA’s chief executive officer and the chairman of the CHA Board of Commissioners.
 
The ombudsman also will conduct at least two meetings a year which are open to all residents. The plan specifies that the meetings be held at times and places convenient for workers. The ombudsman will produce notes from the meeting reflecting the issues raised, and the CHA must respond to them in writing within 30 days, as well as publishing the responses on its Web site.
 
Bazer says the local councils were valuable because they gave residents a place to go with their problems. It seems unlikely that an ombudsman who is not located on site could function in the same way, particularly since the plan proposes to replace 18 local councils with one office.
 
“I can’t see how one person or one small office could represent that many residents,” she says. “Logistically, I’m not sure how residents are going to access someone.”
 
The CHA's plan does not affect residents who live in traditional public housing developments. They will still be represented by local councils.
 
Last year the housing agency’s budget allotted $1.7 million to the local councils, says Zises. The money helps pay for council elections and office expenses. The new ombudsman’s office will divert from that amount the percentage of funds “attributable to mixed-finance families.”
 
Zises says he did not know how much that would be.

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BILL, 03-08-2008

Nice work.