‘Keeping the Promise’ ordinance gains support
February 4, 2017

By Dan Kolen

Two Chicago organizations have teamed with City officials to propose the Keeping the Promise ordinance to help reduce homelessness, expand affordable housing throughout Chicago, and reform the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) so it works better on behalf of the Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

Keeping the Promise would require the CHA to make quarterly reports to improve transparency, adhere to a one-to-one replacement program so that any torn down public housing unit gets replaced by another adequate unit, and achieve a 97% voucher use rate instead of the federally mandated 90%.

The Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI), Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO), and nearly 20 of the City’s 50 aldermen are collaborating on the ordinance.

Protesters at City Hall call for the Chicago Housing Authority to spend more money on helping the homeless. (Photo courtesy Jane Addams Senior Caucus)

“The Keeping the Promise ordinance is important because it addresses the city’s major housing issue: affordable housing,” said John Bartlett, MTO executive director. “Promises were made to the city’s most vulnerable citizens, and those promises have not been kept by a Chicago Housing Authority that arrogantly knows it can ignore the public. That lack of accountability must change.”

With 52.3% of all the city’s renters being low-income, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the number of people who need housing assistance is vast. In addition, low-income renters have it the hardest in the nation, according to a study by New York University’s Furman Institute, which analyzed 2013 national data (the latest available) in the largest 11 US cities. Close to 80% of low-income renters in Chicago were severely rent burdened, the highest percentage in comparison to all other cities studied.

While CHI and MTO single out the CHA in its literature as the ag-ency that needs reform, it is only one of the many groups including City agencies and private companies in charge of the City’s low-income housing.

Housing and vouchers

The CHA counters it is providing affordable housing and vouchers.

“CHA has worked with private sector and non-profit partners to leverage approximately $500 million for the delivery of 2,324 affordable units,” said Molly Sullivan, CHA senior director of communications and media relations. “CHA has, since 2000, made nearly 17,000 additional housing choice vouchers available and today provides vouchers to almost 47,000 families who live in every one of Chicago’s 77 community areas.”

CHI and MTO are backing the ordinance in part because Chicago underuses U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing vouchers. They allege HUD has given CHA 13,500 housing vouchers that it is not using.

CHA said HUD requires CHA to exceed a 90% housing vouchers use rate, and currently CHA’s use rate surpasses that criterion, so the agency is not violating HUD requirements. Sullivan said CHA plans to maintain that 90% rate throughout 2017 and in the coming years. “These vouchers, apartments, and homes not only provide safe, affordable shelter, but with parallel CHA investments in schools, libraries, and grocery and other retail endeavors, they add to the robustness of neighborhoods and sustainability of communities.”

CHI and MTO claim that tens of thousands of people are on wait lists for housing, and instead of being in homes they are sleeping under bridges or in homeless shelters.

“In Chicago, we talk wistfully about becoming a ‘world-class’ city, yet by ignoring the issue of affordable housing, what we are becoming? A ‘third-world’ city, with a seemingly insurmountable divide between rich and poor,” Bartlett said.

Mayoral support?

The Mayor’s office said it is on Bartlett’s, MTO’s, and CHI’s side. “The City and the Chicago Housing Initiative share the same objective: providing as much affordable housing for those in need as possible,” said a spokesperson from the Mayor’s office. “This is why we accelerated the pace of development at CHA, increased the number of vouchers by 17,000 since 2000, and became the first city in the nation to create a dedicated revenue source for homeless services and housing. We are committed to working with CHI and other stakeholders to achieve housing goals and a system that will ensure every Chicagoan has a place to call home.”

Bartlett said that is not enough. “The City desperately needs to prioritize housing policies that guarantee safe, decent, and affordable housing—helping Chicagoans stabilize tenancies to help stabilize families and communities,” Bartlett said.

MTO and CHI have other plans to improve the City’s housing situation.

Bartlett explained that “MTO is also advocating for a housing inspections program—like those in New York and Los Angeles—addressing home-based hazards such as lead poisoning, asthma triggering mold, and pest infestations, before they damage the health of residents, not after.”

The group also wants to help “renters who face evictions from their homes when banks foreclose on deadbeat landlords” and create “solutions to the endless displacement caused by unregulated gentrification and a Just Housing Initiative at the county level addressing the barriers faced by many people with arrests on their records.”

Local aldermen supporting the ordinance so far are Daniel Solis (25th) and Walter Burnett (27th), according to CHI.

For more information, log on to www.chicagohousinginitiative.org.