The Next CHA Chairman?

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The Chicago Housing Authority has been without a chairman since Nov. 1, 1997, when then-Chairman Edwin Eisendrath stepped down from his post to take on a different venture.

Because CHA has been controlled by the federal government since 1995, President Bill Clinton will make the final decision on who will get the job. Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will likely make a recommendation to the president.

But local politicians also will have a strong voice in who becomes the new chairman. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7), U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1), U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2) and U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL) strongly endorsed former Mayor Eugene Sawyer. Sawyer now works for Crown Energy, an oil brokerage that had business dealings with CHA. Sawyer also is co-chairman of Rush’s voter registration drive in memory of Mayor Harold Washington, whom Sawyer succeeded as mayor. Sawyer reportedly was pleased with the endorsements but had to remove his name from the possible candidates.

Davis’ chief of staff, Ira Cohen, was asked if the congressman had another choice. Cohen said, “Rep. Davis has other candidates in mind but will not decide until further investigation.”

There were similar responses from congressmen Rush and Jackson’s offices. Davis’ district covers areas that are inhabited by CHA family developments (Rockwell Gardens, Henry Horner Homes, ALBA Homes, Harrison Courts, Hilliard Homes and Ickes Homes) and a dozen senior housing buildings. Rush’s district has Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor Homes, Ida B.Wells and Washington Park. Carol Moseley-Braun, who also has not yet decided on a replacement for Sawyer, sits on the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over housing programs. Mayor Richard M. Daley will have strong input in deciding on a new chairman for CHA but has yet to decide on a possible candidate.

According to CHA’s public affairs department, the new interim chairperson for CHA is Karen A. Newton, who is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices in Washington, D.C. She currently is not considered a candidate for the position permanently but will hold the position until a person is chosen.

Usually a position like that would require someone with a background in public housing or ties with HUD but I believe (are you listening President Clinton and Secretary Cuomo?) that this person should possess people skills along with a keen business mind and possibly – though I know this will be hard to do – very limited political connections. Because running CHA means access to large contracts and real estate deals, we do not need some who would soon arrange for an old buddy to pick up a $5 million contract for their construction company or someone who would take some CHA land and sell it to a real estate company. So I strongly suggest alderman, congressmen, and former mayors need not to apply. Not to take anything away from Eisendrath: I felt he did a great job with what he had to work with. But others have always seen the CHA as a place to make a quick buck. This sentiment has prevailed not only among the executive brass but also with directors, managers and administrative assistants.

For the new chairman, I have a message: You will need to come tough with the residents but also be honest. It’s better to get on our bad side with the truth than their good side with a lie because you may not be liked but you will be respected.

There will be people from all over the country applying for this position from smaller housing authorities to former CEOs of big businesses. The applicants might also include people who probably have never been in Chicago before in their lives and don’t know the history of Vince Lane, Renault Robinson or Charles Swibel, all former CHA chairmen who could not succeed in changing the face of public housing in Chicago.

Just recently, for the first time in years too numerous to count, a professional accounting firm confirmed that the CHA’s books were in order. This will make the new chairman’s job somewhat easier. But that’s only about 10 percent of what you’ll have to worry about because there are huge headaches lurking in the corridors of CHA housing.

As political as Chicago is, let’s hope that the decision to appoint a new housing chairman is not made to gain votes.

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