Residents Sue CHA


Former and current public housing residents who claimed to be “involuntarily displaced and segregated” filed suit against the Chicago Housing Authority on Jan 23, 2003. The lawsuit alleges that CHA “failed to provide adequate relocation assistance and effective social services to families displaced by public housing demolition,” in violation of federal law and CHA’s contractual agreements with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and with CHA resident leaders.

After previous interactions with residents who were displaced by the CHA, and after communications with current residents who participated in their housing research, attorneys of the National Center on Poverty Law, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest came together to stop the public housing agency from displacing other families in the future.

The lawsuit claims that residents are being displaced to deplorable living conditions in segregated areas in high poverty areas. The lawsuit further charges CHA with violation of federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, which requires public housing authorities to not “materially disadvantage” residents of public housing during relocation.

The lawsuit also charges that CHA is in violation of an agreement with the federal government under their Plan for Transformation in which CHA is obligated to provide “comparable replacement housing located in an area not less desirable than of the Leaseholder’s original dwelling unit with respect to commercial and public facilities…”

On May 30, 1995, HUD took control of CHA. Shortly after, CHA began demolishing its public housing stock after receiving funding from the federal government’s Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere program, also known as HOPE VI.

From 1995 until approximately 1997, CHA did not operate any programs to assist the hundreds of families relocating from demolished or vacated units, and encouraged residents to accept rent vouchers under the former Section 8 program, according to the suit. The suit claims that when CHA hired Changing Patterns for Families in or around 1997 to provide relocation services to the CHA families, “they failed to provide the mobility assistance to enable the families to move into racially integrated neighborhoods.”

Based upon “information and their belief,” the plaintiffs charged that CHA knew Changing Patterns for Families was not providing information to the families on opportunity areas where there was a low poverty level that was racially diverse. But CHA failed to take any action to prevent Changing Patterns from relocating the families to predominately African American neighborhoods, the lawsuit alleges.

To assist in the plaintiffs’ claims, the suit refers to a recent study by a public housing expert Paul Fischer, a professor at Lake Forest College, who was commissioned by the National Center on Poverty Law to report on the relocation. Fischer reported that 83 percent of the approximate 3,200 families that relocated between 1995 and 2002 moved to neighborhoods that were at least 90 percent African American, and 50 percent moved to “high poverty” areas.

CHA Responds
CHA spokesperson Kathryn Greenberg said during a phone conversation in late January that she didn’t know if CHA was accountable to those residents who moved prior to the city taking control over the public housing agency from HUD in October 1999.

“I understand that there is a class of people for this lawsuit that includes people that have moved as of 1995. And I really don’t honestly know whether CHA is accountable to those residents who moved prior to the city taking over, or whether that is a HUD issue,” she said.

“But I will say that in light of the fact that it is in court, we generally don’t tend to comment on the lawsuits except to just say that, of course, we obviously wish that we weren’t getting sued, and would rather be spending our resources on making the changes that we all agree need to be made to better improve the outcomes for residents.
“But I think at the end of the day, it’s going to get decided in court,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg said that CHA had been working with the people involved before the lawsuit, and intended to keep doing so. But she said the group’s attorneys stopped communicating with them. “We were in communications with these groups to try and address their concerns,” Greenberg explained. “And the last conversation we had with them, we continued to think we were going to continue talking about ways to resolve the issue and then they went to court with the lawsuit.”

Attorneys for the Residents
The residents’ attorneys dispute CHA’s account of their interactions. Alex Polikoff, an attorney at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest who is one of the lawyers that is working pro bono on behalf of the seven residents who are suing CHA, said during a February phone interview that “CHA refused to negotiate with us.”

“CHA is the obstacle to that. Not ourselves,” Polikoff said.
“We very much wanted to negotiate instead of suing. In fact, we sent them a letter on Nov. 14, 2002, and we held off the suit for over 2 months in the hopes that they would enter into serious negotiations. You know, you can pretend to talk and not really talk, and that’s what was happening,” he declared.

Polikoff said that residents who were relocated before October 1999 were entitled to sue CHA because the public housing agency at the time allegedly began planning to demolish buildings and residents were forced out involuntarily because of the condition of their units. Polikoff said CHA neglect caused the tenants to move out.

“The formal Transformation Plan didn’t begin until later, but informal evictions occurred earlier. For example: first, knowing that it intended to demolish a building, CHA failed to maintain it so that the unit became uninhabitable. Flooding, rats, roaches and so on. And no human being could live in it anymore,” Polikoff explained. “So under those circumstances, the family says, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ And they move out.

The reason CHA allowed the unit to deteriorate was that they knew they were going to be demolishing it and they didn’t want to spend any money, disregarding that people were still living in it. “So our theory is, if somebody moves out under those circumstances, they are entitled to relocation benefits just as much as somebody who moves out after 1999.”

Polikoff agreed that the lawsuit will take up much needed resources to service residents, but he said CHA should be improving the relocation process rather than litigating. “But it is CHA that is forcing the litigation, not ourselves,” he declared. “I repeat, we held off filing the lawsuit for over 2 months in the hopes that they would negotiate seriously. We’re eager to settle the case and get back to negotiations.”

Other attorneys working on the case said CHA has been engaged in harassment of the tenants involved in the suit. William P. Wilen, a lawyer with the National Center on Poverty Law, said four of the seven residents named in the lawsuit had complained about undergoing “surprise housing inspections” on Feb. 11, 12 and 13 by employees of the agency hired to run their Housing Voucher Program. Wilen said the inspections resulted in some evictions.

“They have been subjected to surprise inspections, and photos taken of their units by people from CHA. And 5 had a grievance denied unfairly,” he said. “They can’t have their agents harassing our clients.”

Wilen said the attorneys in the court case wrote a letter on Feb. 13 asking CHA lawyers to look into what CHA employees were doing, and would be getting a court order prohibiting CHA officials from any contact with the residents involved in the court case.

Charles R. Petrof of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said during a phone conversation in mid-February that a court hearing was scheduled for Feb. 28. But he said he expected the hearing to be postponed because CHA asked for more time to answer the complaint in the lawsuit.

“I expect that that date will be postponed and that the judge will grant CHA’s request for additional time to answer our complaints,” he said.

One Small Voice
Lisa Taylor, a disabled mother of a 14-year old son, was the only plaintiff who could be reached by Residents’ Journal press deadline. She was in the process of moving at the time of her mid-February phone interview, and said that she was concentrating on moving and not the lawsuit.

“I’m not worrying about a lawsuit or anything else at this time. Some of our rights were violated. But I’m disabled, and my focus is on me moving, and what’s around me. But other than me concentrating on that, I’m just trying to move,” said Taylor. Taylor was displaced from CHA in 1997 and currently lives in the Englewood community, which she said is no better than, and just as dangerous as, CHA.

“Every corner you pass, it’s drug infested and there’s gang bangers. I don’t want to live like I’m living now. It’s a high crime neighborhood. I’d rather have been placed were I was then, being in ABLA,” she said. Taylor said that she wants CHA to continue tearing down the high-rises and hopes that what comes out of the lawsuit is that CHA will house people in good neighborhoods.

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