Farewell, Mr. Chairman


As chairman of Chicago Housing Authority, Edwin Eisendrath headed the 1995 federal takeover. Eisendrath stepped down in November to pursue a career in the education field but RJ Reporter Anita Baker caught up with him in his new office and reflected on the past three years.

RJ: What was your role as CHA chairman?

EE: “I hired CHA’s executive director, who is Joseph Shuldiner, a choice I am very glad I made.

“The responsibilities that were mine suddenly became Mr. Shuldiner’s and he is now is doing all of the heavy lifting. The board has to approve a number of things: policies of the agency, budgets, contracts, etc. In this case, I was the board. Everything was unanimous. In order to do this you have to listen to lots of people. You can’t just say ‘Gee, I’m on your own. I get to make whatever decision I want.’ Then you’re guaranteed to fail. You have to spend lots of time listening to residents and community leaders. Instead reach out for whatever the best opinion about how to do things.

“In reality, as long as the federal government was taking over, it was slightly different than a normal chairman. A normal chairman has a full board and you have to make sure that everybody on the board knows what’s going on and gets information they need to make very important policy decisions for the agency. What direction should it go about things like mixing the elderly with the disabled. How should you implement One Strike You’re Out. What do you do about the issues raised on the viability test. These are very important questions. It’s the board’s responsibility to pick a direction for the agency and to make sure that it goes in that direction and does it in a way physically, legally and properly. Ultimately, you know that the chairman is supposed to take the lead.

RJ: Why did you want to take over the Chicago Housing Authority?

EE: “I wanted to do something for the Authority. It mattered a great deal to me. I pushed very hard to get then-Secretary Henry Cisneros to agree to step up and give more money in Chicago and he did. They were very upset about the idea in Washington.

“I wanted to make sure that Chicago Housing Authority was run very well. It has taken unbelievable steps to get there in ­the last few years. Starting with the audit and financial matters. A clean audit that tells the public where the Chicago Housing Authority spends its money. This is a remarkable thing. The idea that a government could exist in the United States and not be able to tell taxpayers and residents where the money went is unbelievable and unacceptable. Now, residents living in the Chicago Housing Authority, and for that matter anybody in the United States, can pick up the audit and read it and know where the money is spent, know where they’re getting the money. This was very important. We took control over lots of things: a clean audit, procurement. There was criminal fraud with the pension fund, which people stole money from. Control is very important.

RJ: What was your most important achievement?

EE: “The most important thing in my tenure were the residents of public housing. They are my whole life. Completely ignored by Chicago, they were a second city within a city. They were a forgotten people in a forgotten neighborhood. And now residents are standing up and requiring to be included in things. I say beginning, because it will probably take 15 or more years of work. There is a beginning of an end to this notion that if you live in public housing you are a second-class citizen. Everybody in Chicago will be a citizen of Chicago together. This is more important to me.

Taking the worst of our buildings and tearing them down and replacing them with housing like Henry Horner. The Authority has hired a good staff. They have begun reintegrating public housing families in civil life. They have begun to transform physically and through helping residents find employment. The Authority has done a lot in such a short time.

RJ: Do you have any regrets or wishes that you could have done more?

EE: “You always want to get more done than you can in a day but everything takes longer. Personally, I would have focused more on the little kids. Lots has been done. We did a lot of creative, talented things. Helping young men and women go beyond to find employment. I maybe should have focused a little harder on the quality of early childhood in our community. I wished that I could have done more for early childhood. I’m not naïve about the real obstacle to progress. I know there are setbacks that you have to overcome. There will continue to be setbacks that will have to be overcome going forward. It’s important to keep the perimeter strong enough so that when you have an incident – like what’s happening in Cabrini lately – but you can get through and get back on track.

“Is it realistic to think that Chicago in my lifetime will be an absolute shuffled deck? Integrated communities with everybody living next to each other: rich, poor, white, Black and Hispanic. It is very important that we reach across any line that is drawn. About where we live and work and respect each other and gain from each other. That’s what is beginning to happen as much as the physical changes. It’s beginning in house with the Chicago Housing Authority, where the Authority says to the residents, ‘We have mint redevelopment opportunities. Come here and tell us how you think this should happen. You hire a planner. We have business opportunities here. You should step up to the plate and take advantage of them. We have journalism opportunities. Step up and participate.’ This is how it begins.

“Could we have done more at Cabrini? I suppose the answer is yes. But to do more at Cabrini means on a given day to do less somewhere else. There’s so much that has to happen to pull the Authority up. I respect very much Mr. Shuldiner’s sense that it’s not going to be the emergencies that determine the direction the ship sails. That we have a place to go and we’re going to get there. When things happen, you deal with it. You don’t let it pull you off track and just focus on what will be a big show.

“Policing issues are among the most difficult. Not only in the Authority. Look at the difficulty the city is having. It’s not just Chicago. In every city and nation in history, policing issues are immensely difficult because they have to do with the limits you set forcibly, by the government. Which is what police do. They are an arm of the government. They forcibly stop people from crime and protect citizens from people. It’s a very tough thing to do. Combine it with the immense racial disparity, crime and arrest patterns that you see and you get something that will be explosive.

“The chief I think continues to do a sensitive job as can be done to make sure that the police that we have are deployed reasonably and that we get the most protection we can for a rapidly diminishing amount of money. Police leave because they’re needed elsewhere. The police budget has been cut and will continue to go down. All of that is part of when the day comes when all of our residents are protected like every other resident in the city by the city police force. With this minimum, extras help but even for this to happen we must make sure that our residents aren’t causing the crimes. If we let people in our buildings, who is going to be the problem? There’s nothing anyone can do. The Authority’s management has a lot to do with how safe the property is. Not just the police.

“We agree that tenant patrol has a very big responsibility. And there has been a push to make tenant patrol more useful. But not all of the developments have tenant patrol.

“There are changes that take longer. Mr. Ed Moses and Joe Smith sort of revamped the tenant patrol. It’s more fair across the board.

RJ: What projects do you want to continue?

EE: “I want to see the residents of the Chicago Housing Authority treated like and feel like the residents of the rest of the city. Some of that is swimming up against the media and TV. There are so many good people who live in public housing. So many of the buildings and the developments are perfectly fine and they really are as good as stuff on the private market. They’re not luxurious housing. They are decent places for people to live. That’s important for our residents to know and the general public to know. Places that I’m not saying that people stop complaining about. On the contrary, it’s the residents demanding that they continue to be made better. So that’s one.

“The Chicago Housing Authority is continuing work on all of the major redevelopment that is going on. We have to continue to work and make the buildings safer, help people find assets to employment, help pay attention to our children who live there. We have to continue to secure our buildings with reduced money for police. I think that the residents and employees of the Chicago Housing Authority are really committed to make it happen. This too I hope will continue.”

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