A proposal to strip much of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s control of the Chicago Housing Authority will get a public hearing at City Hall next month

Emanuel opposes the proposed law, which has little support among aldermen. But advocates say the forum will shed light on hundreds of millions of federal government dollars the city chooses to hold rather than spend to house the poor.

Emanuel’s CHA squirrels away federal money designated for housing while tens of thousands of people live in temporary residences or are homeless, critics say. While the city is legally permitted to spend the federal money as it sees fit, Chicago failed in recent years to meet a goal for replacing thousands of public housing apartments lost from CHA high-rise teardowns that began more than a decade ago. Advocates say the City Council should oversee public housing to make sure supply keeps up with demand. Under the proposed law, development and spending decisions would be shared with the council rather than giving Emanuel full power over the housing agency.

Cabrini Green Housing

Above: The Cabrini-Green high rises on the North Side were torn down as part of Chicago’s broader plan to redistribute public housing. Photo by David Wilson CC 2.0. Top photo: One of the Cabrini towers is demolished.

“It is calling for CHA to spend the dollars that have not been spent on the re-establishment of affordable and public housing — they are way, way, way behind,” said Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st), sponsor of the proposed ordinance dubbed “Keeping the Promise.”

“Tens of millions of dollars are not being spent, people are without homes and there are decades of mistrust.”

The law also would direct the agency to issue more vouchers for CHA residents to live in private residences, a program known as Section 8. More than 40,000 CHA tenants rent Section 8 properties — almost twice the number now living in agency-owned buildings. The application wait list for CHA or Section 8 housing in Chicago was almost 121,000 at the end of September. The agency is still several thousand units short of a goal set in 1999 to develop 25,000 new units of public housing by 2010.

Other provisions of the proposed law: Require CHA to stop selling or swapping land where public housing once stood; replace every housing unit lost one for one; and increase the number of Section 8 vouchers distributed by CHA.

At the end of 2014, CHA had excess cash of $430 million. The agency has been so flush with money that it used more than $260 million in housing money to pay debt and fully fund the CHA employee pension in 2011 and 2012, an analysis by Chicago research group Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found.

Emanuel opposes loss of control of his agency, which boasts an annual budget of more than $1 billion — largely funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which didn’t want to comment on the proposed law. The measure “would hinder the CHA’s ability to provide the housing and services that Chicago depends on,” Emanuel’s office says in a statement.

While HUD oversees dollars flowing to Chicago, Moreno and public housing activists say the federal agency doesn’t police spending. In fact, a special federal designation that CHA holds gives Emanuel autonomy to decide how to spend the money.

The agency has been plagued by instability with four different chief executives in the past five years. The current agency chief, Eugene Jones Jr., has an “acting” title after Emanuel picked him to replace Michael Merchant in June 2015. The following month, Emanuel named retired ComEd executive and lobbyist John T. Hooker as chairman, replacing Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott.

“We have not had the right team in place,” Hooker said in an interview, referring to the CHA leadership.

Emanuel appointed Hooker to help right the agency. The mayor “said ‘you need to bring some stabilization, you need to bring some accountability,’” Hooker said. “Folks have to be held accountable.”

Hooker pledged to spend the millions available to develop new housing.

CHA keeping the promise

Public housing advocates began pushing for the Keeping the Promise ordinance in 2014. Photo by Brett Chase.

“Some of the things CHA didn’t do in the last 10 years we’re doing now,” he said. “We plan to spend the money adequately to provide the housing for this community.”

Still, housing advocates say the proposed law is necessary given Emanuel’s track record. Replacement housing slowed to crawl after he took office in 2011. The number of public housing units added in Emanuel’s first four years (673) fell short of the 851 added in 2010, said Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative.

“The policies have been consistently poor and there needs to be a rebalancing of the accountability structure,” said Levinger, whose group advocates for low-income housing.

The hearing will be held Feb. 17, according to Ald. Joe Moore (49th). Moore, chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, said he will hold an informational hearing without calling for a vote on the measure. An early supporter of the Keeping the Promise ordinance, Moore said, after researching, he now opposes it.

“I’m committed to holding a hearing, but that’s where my commitment ends at this point,” said Moore, who as committee chairman holds huge sway over whether the measure will ever be voted on or approved. The proposal “has unintended consequences that would make it almost impossible to plan new public housing.”

Moore said he fears the plan would slow the development of new housing by adding bureaucratic layers.