CHA residents wary of new ombudsman

Can one person hear the concerns of the nearly 7,500 public housing families living in Chicago’s new mixed-income communities?

Many residents and housing advocates don’t think so. They say the Chicago Housing Authority’s newly appointed ombudsman won’t be able to adequately address the issues of residents living in these new communities.

“There are too many people, and too many complaints out there,” says Francine Washington, former president of the local advisory council at Stateway Gardens, which is now the mixed-income community Park Boulevard.

Local advisory councils have represented residents in Chicago’s public housing since 1971. But the CHA eliminated the councils in mixed-income developments in 2007, replacing them with an in-house ombudsman. The CHA recently hired Sandra Larry, a CHA employee of 11 years, to fill the position. Larry held her first meetings with residents last week.

Residents can call, fax or email (slarry@thecha.org) their concerns to Larry, and the issues will be referred to the appropriate department and then will be followed up on, says Matt Aguilar, CHA spokesperson.

The local advisory councils may not exist formally. But many resident leaders are still working on behalf of their neighbors. Washington says her residents still come to her with their concerns and issues.

“I’m there for the residents,” she says.

Washington is concerned that Larry, as a CHA employee, will side with the agency over residents.

“If residents have a major problem and CHA is at fault, I don’t think they’re going to get a fair opinion,” says Washington. “They’re probably just going to sweep it under the rug.”

CHA officials did not say if there was a system in place to ensure Larry's objectivity in resolving disputes. They emphasized that she is committed to serving residents.

“I am dedicated to meeting the needs and challenges faced by CHA public housing residents living in mixed-income communities, and am striving to make sure that their concerns are addressed and that their voices are heard," said Larry, in a statement.

Larry was not available for an interview for this story.

Washington isn’t alone in continuing to advocate for her residents, despite the new ombudsman position. Crystal Palmer is the LAC president for Westhaven, formerly Henry Horner Homes, and still works with residents who live in the mixed-income community on site, Westhaven Park.

Palmer says Larry may have a hard time getting residents to trust her. Although all her residents got a letter announcing last week’s meeting with Larry, only one or two of them attended.

“I think she has to develop relationships with them,” says Palmer. “They’re not familiar with the ombudsman. They don’t even know who she is. Right now, she’s just a letter to them.”

Housing advocates are also worried about the new ombudsman position. Stephanie Villinski, lawyer with the Legal Assistance Foundation, says people were skeptical at last week’s meeting at Cabrini-Green.

Villinski says without an organized presence already in place, she’s worried that residents’ voices will get lost.

“Can one person really address all these issues?” she says.

Residents can organize their own neighborhood groups at mixed-income communities, something which Palmer and Washington are working on. Some communities, like Oakwood Shores, already have started a resident neighborhood association.

Washington says mixed-income communities already have associations for homeowners and condo owners to belong to, but because residents don’t own, they aren’t allowed to participate. 

“The homeowners have a voice. The condo owners have a voice. The residents don’t have anyone,” says Washington.

She hopes a new residents association will help all income levels talk to each other about neighborhood concerns and bring people together.

“It should be one community, one voice,” Washington says.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.

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