Tenants Council Battles To Represent Residents

by  Editor-In-Chief

For the last year, a battle about tenant councils has been brewing between the resident Central Advisory Council, the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There are two issues. The first is whether public housing residents living in tax-credit financed units in the new CHA mixed income communities can vote and be a part of existing Local Advisory Council elections. The other issue is whether public housing residents occupying those types of units can form a separate tenant council. Public housing residents are represented by Local Advisory Councils in dealings with CHA. The councils also tackle occupancy issues, social service needs as well as public safety concerns.

The CAC is currently fighting for the right to represent residents occuping this last Robert Taylor Homes building in late 2005 and others resident in CHA's mixed financed units. Photo by Mary C. Johns

Each development had one LAC, and all of the LAC presidents formed the Central Advisory Council, which negotiated on behalf of residents with CHA, HUD, the police department and other agencies.

Council formation is governed by federal law. According to Section 964.125 of the federal code, “Any member of a public housing household whose name is on the lease of a unit in the public housing development and meets the requirement of the by-laws is eligible to be a member of a resident council.”

Such councils, federal law states, may represent residents in scattered sites buildings, row houses, contiguous buildings, developments or in a combination of buildings and developments.At the time of this report, HUD agreed that residents in mixed-finance developments may choose to create public housing councils, join broader neighborhood associations or do both. But CHA isn’t acknowledging the rights of relocated residents living in those communities to do so.

CHA says residents should only join neighborhood associations with market-rate buyers and renters in the new communities. The questions arose soon after closure of the Robert Taylor Homes in late 2005, according to an August 18, 2006 letter from HUD Regional Director Steven Meiss to CAC counsel Richard Wheelock.

Residents’ Journal spoke to Wheelock’s fellow lawyer and CAC co-counsel Robert Whitfield on two occasions to find out what has been going on with the situation.Tax Credits Cause Complication Whitfield said widespread use of tax-credit financing by CHA to complete the agency’s Plan for Transformation complicated the LAC situation.

He explained this March that in the past, CHA owned both the land and buildings, but the mixed-income developments now rising under the Plan mean private developers now own the buildings, while the housing authority owns the land. Does this mean the developer is exempt from HUD regulations, including those about tenant councils?

“That’s a brand new concept throughout the country…We take the position that the rules still apply to the developer through CHA since they signed the regulatory agreements and if they’re going to treat these public housing units the same as other public housing units,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield said “nobody was thinking” about this issue during the start of redevelopment.

“Remember, we weren’t involved in the financing. That really wasn’t our issue. We were more concerned about people’s right to return and attend to the mission, and not the time they financed it. We didn’t really give a [expletive deleted]. That was up to them,” Whitfield said.

While traditional CHA was allowed to “deprogram” – or take a public housing unit out of its inventory – to use for LAC offices, Whitfield said that developers are prohibited from using the units they have built for anything but residential purposes.

“If there’s going to be a LAC space, then somebody has to agree beforehand that some office space will be built as part of the development, and can be used by the LAC,” Whitfield said. “That’s possible, but once it’s been built, the developer, even if he wanted to, by law is prohibited from converting that tax-credit financed unit for non-residential purposes, which would be required if you’re going to have an LAC office made out of a unit.”

“So those are two issues that never existed before. They now exist everywhere. Not just at the CHA. I still think [developers are] obligated to comply with all of public housing regulations, including the ones about letting an LAC form. But, it’s one thing to say that a [developer is] required to let an LAC form, but it’s meaningless if they have no place to be. One without the other means nothing, even if he says ‘okay fine,'” Whitfield explained.

During the March 2007 interview Whitfield told RJ that CHA would abide by HUD’s decision. But the CHA officials have apparently changed their minds.

Relocated CHA residents who might be living in mixed financed public housing units in this Legends South building along 41st and State Street may not take part in the upcoming CHA's Tenant Council elections in November. Photo by Mary C. Johns

Whitfield told RJ after the August 2007 CAC Tenant Services meeting that the CHA was still in opposition to the idea of residents being in any part of the upcoming tenant council elections, or establishment of tenant councils. This opposition, Whitfield said, was a hindrance in getting the needed Request for Proposal for a private firm to bid on hosting the resident elections.

“They just sent us a letter saying no. They are just saying they should not and because they firmly believe that they should not participate in tenant elections, they will not allow them to do it. Now, how do they do that? Because we have to put out an RFP for the elections coming up, which CHA has to put out…they said that they were not going to put out an RFP that contains language that allows tenants in mixed financed to form or join a tenant council. CHA does not does not have the final word. Now, the CAC’s next step may be litigation. That’s where we are as of today,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield added that HUD officials were in the process of changing the mandatory federal rules for establishment and participation of tenant councils to exclude public housing residents living in CHA mixed financed units in mixed income communities.

“It is my understanding that the HUD officials are working on drafts that will change the requirements for public housing units in mixed finance. We have not seen it, but that is what we have been led to understand,” he said.

HUD’s Decision Based on two letters to the CAC, it appears that HUD officials agree residents have the right to form a council in the new mixed-finance developments.

HUD had this to say about the situation: “In your letter, it was indicated that the last building [at the former Robert Taylor Homes] closed November of 2005. No council members or residents live at the development anymore and therefore, a recognized resident council does not exist. … Once construction is completed the families who move into units subsidized by the low-rent public housing program may elect to form an association.

“However, the purpose of mixed-income communities is to eliminate the marginalization that has historically occurred in traditional low-rent housing projects. Thus, HUD is encouraging residents to become members of the overall residents association, instead of a group that includes only a portion of the residents within the overall community.

“If residents of the units receiving public housing operating subsidies form an organization the housing authority may provide office space on site, if available. There is no requirement that the private owner provide space,” read an August 18, 2006 letter from HUD to CAC attorney Richard Wheelock.

In a March 9, 2007 letter to CAC Chairperson Mary E. Wiggins, HUD Regional Director Meiss again wrote that public housing residents, including those relocated under the Plan for Transformation, may create a new council.

“We reiterate here what was said in that letter, which is that families moving into public housing units in mixed-income communities may elect to form an association. Public housing residents moving into revitalized mixed-income communities have the option of creating a new Resident Council or becoming part of the larger community body, or doing both,” the Meiss letter read.

“Of course, active resident participation in the development process will assist with this transformation and ensure continuity of resident involvement.”

HUD officials were unavailable for further comment by RJ’s deadline.

CHA Disagrees
Whitfield told RJ that the Central Advisory Council had recently amended its bylaws to accommodate resident participation in existing Local Advisory Council elections, as well as for the relocated people living in the tax-financed credit public housing units to establish a tenant council.

This change didn’t sit well with CHA, which takes the position that the whole purpose of mixed financed is to integrate the public housing and market rate people together and not to distinguish between them.

“We reiterate the position of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) that the CAC Bylaws should not include references to, or provide for, CHA pubic housing residents in mixed-income communities.

This has been our position which had been accepted at the time of the executing of the 2007 Funding Agreement earlier this year…We cannot accept the CAC Bylaws as providing for a preemptive means of organizing and representing public housing residents in mixed income communities,” stated the Aug. 6, 2007 letter from CHA counsel to CAC attorney Robert Whitfield.

“Therefore, we object to any references in your Bylaws that would include or be deemed to include public housing residents in mixed-income developments.

“Further, the general elections to be held, which were included in the 2007 budget under the Funding Agreement, did not contemplate the inclusion of public housing residents in mixed income developments in that process.”

It is our opinion, and we believe that it is generally recognized, that traditional public housing and the public housing units in privately owned, publicly subsidized mixed income/mixed finance communities are distinguishable and are not considered as the same,” stated the Aug. 6, 2007 letter.

In an April 2007 interview, CHA spokesperson Bryan Zises said relocated public housing tenants in the mixed-financed units should work with their neighbors and take part in neighborhood associations to address concerns formerly handled by the LACs.

“I think it makes perfect sense that people who live in mixed-income communities are participating in that mixed-income community,” Zises said.

“And I’d like to see that in mixed-income communities there is participation from everyone who lives there no matter what their income is. And I’d like to see public housing residents participating in that community’s organization,” he said.

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