Officials from the Chicago Housing Authority have been under fire recently for proposing to drug test all tenants. But for over a year, CHA pushed a new policy that would have required tenants to turn over their children’s report cards and other school information as a condition for remaining in public housing. CHA’s proposal was fiercely resisted by the tenants’ representatives and their lawyers, and the CHA eventually backed down.
“This is appalling, and is not, and never has been authorized by Federal statute, or the regulations issued by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); nor is it contained as an exception in the CHA’s Moving to Work (MTW) Agreement,” declared Robert Whitfield, the attorney for the Central Advisory Council, the elected leaders of CHA tenants, in one of the back and forth emails to CHA General Counsel Scott Ammarell on December 8, 2010, which Residents’ Journal obtained from Whitfield.
In 2010, CHA approved a new admissions policy which allows the agency to collect information from children’s schools. But Whitfield contended that CHA was going beyond its authority: “It continues to be my legal opinion that these….provisions cannot be required as a condition for continued occupancy in public housing, and that CHA is without legal authority to do so,” wrote Whitfield to Ammarell again on Nov. 9, 2010.
Whitfield stated that the current CHA release and consent forms are written so broadly as to allow CHA to obtain any record from anybody seeking to apply for public housing or to re-certify existing tenants. Whitfield threatened to complain to the federal government if CHA did not stop by using the form by Dec. 10, 2010.
“If I do not receive written assurance of the discontinued use of this form by the above date, I will immediately forward correspondence to [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] requesting that that office send a directive to CHA requiring that CHA discontinue use of the consent form,” wrote Whitfield in a December 8, 2010, email to CHA’s Ammarell.
In addition, Whitfield said that it was disclosed to him that the questionable form is also in use at some CHA senior buildings. The following day, Whitfield sent out a memorandum to all tenant council presidents advising them to notify all public housing tenants that they are not required to sign the form and should refuse to do so.
Whitfield said he found out about CHA’s use of the questionable form after he received a copy from a tenant of the CHA’s Lowden Homes. He first emailed Ammarell in March 2010 emphasizing CAC’s “strong objections” to the new consent form authorizing the release of school information. In a March 29 email to Ammarell, Whitfield stated, “The CAC Board was adamant that this was not a subject for discussion or negotiation.”
And in a November 9, 2010 email to Ammarell, Whitfield said that it was his “understanding and recollection” that CHA had decided not to proceed with the policy of having schools provide information. He added that CHA “verbally” indicated so at their September 2010 CHA Board Committee meeting and again at their general public board meeting that same month.
But after reviewing the new admissions policy in December, Whitfield discovered a provision that does require CHA families to also provide a copy of report cards during the family’s reexamination. Dissatisfied because CHA was apparently refusing to get rid of the questionable release forms, Whitfield decided to take the issue to the federal government.
“…I still maintain that CHA does not have the legal authority to require either the submission of report cards and or the signing of a consent form authorizing release of school records, as an added condition of eligibility. I have forwarded this issue to the HUD Chicago office, and will follow up with a formal letter to that office asking HUD’s opinion on this issue,” he stated.
Whitfield began emailing Steven E. Meiss, director of HUD’s Illinois Office of Public Housing, to rectify the situation. Meiss and Ammarell corresponded on the issue through April 2011. They apparently were unable to come to any resolution, however, as indicated by e-mails between Whitfield and Meiss. On May 16, 2011, Whitfield emailed Meiss asking him about the status of the issue:
“It is essential that some written guidance be forwarded as soon as possible. The CAC will continue to advise all CHA residents of their right to refuse to sign any CHA Consent Form now in use – until such time as HUD has forwarded written approval of any revised CHA form,” Whitfield wrote.
On May 19, Meiss responded, saying the agency was “…working on it at this very moment. We will copy you on our letter to CHA.”
Laura Feldman from the Chicago-based HUD office told Residents’ Journal during a phone interview on May 31, 2011, that the form that the CHA is currently using is now legal: “The review by the CHA lawyers and our legal counsel believes that the form that is currently being used in response to all of this hard work is in compliance with the regulations. We have no problems with the form.”
She added that if private management officials were still using the old forms, it would be left up to Whitfield and the CAC to work it out with the CHA.
“We are confident that the CAC and CHA will work through their problems,” she said.
Later, CHA spokesperson Matthew Aguilar sent an email to Residents’ Journal saying they were no longer seeking the tenants’ children’s report cards.
“As we have previously informed you, the CHA had proposed that residents consent to schools releasing grade and attendance information to the CHA for the purpose of assessing potential need for services. After conversations with various stakeholders, the CHA withdrew the proposal,” Aguilar wrote on June 6, 2011.
Tags: CHA, Chicago public housing, chicago public schools, chicago youth, drug testing, housing, privacy
Categories: Homepage Investigative Reporting