Mr. Robinson Goes to Washington

by Andre Robinson 

When I first started working on this resident newspaper this summer, I was both excited and concerned. I was enthusiastic about writing articles about my community and other public housing developments. I questioned, however, how much freedom I would have in writing various articles. So I asked my editor what we could and couldn’t write about and if there were people within CHA we could not touch. He assured me the paper would not be censored and that I had carte blanche on who and what I could write about without interference from the brass at CHA. I nevertheless remained skeptical.

The true test of the paper came when my editor announced that I would be accompanying him on a trip to Washington, D.C. The trip would be to a conference organized by Dominium, a private management company that is managing a CHA development and is seeking to become a national leader in the privatization field. The conference would bring together residents from Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Chicago. But I was determined to get an interview with one of the Washington big shots. I had spoken to my friends, neighbors and relatives to collect their concerns of how changes at the nation’s capitol would affect them.

So with that ammunition, off to Washington, D.C., I went. I got my chance for a big interview with Kevin Marchman, the former interim Executive Director of CHA and currently HUD’s Deputy Secretary for Public and Indian Housing. I met Marchman on the first night of the Dominium conference, after he made a speech to the residents and Dominium officials. We scheduled an interview for the following day.

While Marchman was in Chicago immediately after the HUD takeover of CHA in the summer of 1995, I was able to attend a couple of resident organizational meetings where he spoke. But with all the hoopla that surrounds those meetings, I couldn’t get a clear understanding of what Marchman was about.

But now I had my chance. There I was, standing inside the Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters, located at 451 7th St SW 20410. It is a large building designed similarly to those buildings surrounding it but with its own unique personality. As I walked down the hallway, I passed by offices on both sides of me that seemed as if they would never stop. Then, finally, there it was: the office of Public and Indian Housing. Before I entered Marchman’s office, I was expecting to see a massive room with a huge desk made of redwood decorated with different artifacts in front of a large chair. I was shocked to find his office to be very simple and nowhere near what I had imagined. Nothing stood out to intimidate me. It was the type of office where I could see myself working back in Chicago; nothing fancy, just simple and straight to the point.

Now after seeing this, I began wondering if I’d prejudged Marchman too soon. Maybe he wasn’t some Washington official who didn’t have a clue of what public housing was all about and was more concerned with his golf score. As Marchman and I chatted, I began seeing a person who knew his job and what his job meant to the lives of the people in public housing in Chicago. Rather than nonchalance, he expressed anger that CHA had become the worst-managed housing authority in the nation with people living in deplorable conditions.

Marchman predicted that HUD will need to help improve the operation of CHA for years to come but perhaps in a different form than today. Specifically, we discussed various issues such as the possibilities of redevelopment for Robert Taylor Homes in comparison to Cabrini Green and Henry HornerHomes.

We also discussed the recent signing of the “Welfare Bill” that will affect thousands of CHA residents. Asked whether the Welfare Bill will have a catastrophic effect on public housing residents, Marchman said HUD is currently looking at different programs that can help residents who are having problems with the new changes. Marchman added, however, that there are as yet no specific programs to ease the transition from old welfare system to new.

I also asked Marchman how much longer HUD will operate CHA. I presented this question to Marchman on behalf of the residents of CHA, many of whom have seen improvements as a result of the HUD takeover. In fact, I characterized HUD’s role at CHA as an affectionate foster parent who is taking care of an abused child. Marchman was pleased by this description in that it indicated that he had impacted the lives of CHA residents. But he added that HUD’s oversight of CHA was “not indefinite.”

HUD will evaluate CHA’s situation some time at the end of the year, Marchman said, and may decide to withdraw depending on the results of that examination. I told him to rest assured that the CHA situation is much better now than it was back in May of 1995 and many residents have confidence it can only get better. How much longer it will take to make the necessary improvements and how successful the improvements will be, only time will tell.

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