Utility Problems Persist for Residents

by  Assistant Editor

The living situation many relocated CHA residents are facing is like an Easter egg without the yolk – pretty on the outside but with nothing on the inside. They are living in an extremely fragile housing situation that could leave them homeless if their problems are left unaddressed.

Fontain Fleming, a young, single mother of nine, relocated from the Robert Taylor Homes to Englewood in 2002. One of her children is 16 years old and disabled. This young lady is also the mother of a one year old child, who lives within the Fleming household, bringing the total number of people in the household to 11.
The Flemings were one of the large families from Robert Taylor Homes to be relocated into the private market through the Chicago Housing Authority’s Transformation Plan.

Fleming relocated with a Housing Choice Voucher, also known as Section 8. But if you ask her, she will tell you that her relocation into the private market has been like climbing uphill without hiking boots.“

It’s been hard trying to make ends meet,” Fleming said.

Fleming came to my place of employment only because she remembered me helping people in the development.

“I have been without gas or lights for over five months now,” Fleming said.

Why is that, I asked?

Fleming showed me an electric bill totaling $13,497.75. She also had two denial letters from utility assistance programs, one from the Community and Economic Development Association and one from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

These high electric bills stem from the time that many of the low-income residents were living in public housing. The bills continue to plague the people, to follow them everywhere they move.

CHA CEO Terry Peterson, at this June 2004 press conference on the five-year progress of the Plan for Transformation held at the Chicago Historical Society, said CHA would assist residents with their utility bills throughout the Plan for Transformation. Photo by Mary C. Johns

Bills like that threaten their credit, their vouchers and their chance to replacement housing in the private market. Once they do get private market housing, it threatens their chance of keeping housing.

Fleming is proof that high utilities bills catches up with you once you have been relocated into the private market.
“I thought that I could handle these problems myself,” Fleming explained. “I tried everything that I could think of, and when I couldn’t do anything else, I thought about the way you use to help people in the development. So that is why I’m here asking you to help me please,” Fleming added.

I asked her if she had an income.

“No, I do not have an income,” Fleming answered.

“DCFS has threatened to take my children away if I can’t get gas and lights back on, plus I going to lose my Section 8 voucher,” Fleming said, holding back tears.

I went to view Fleming’s home in the heart of Englewood, a high poverty, predominately African American community. She lives close to a lot of the relocated CHA residents.

The house was lovely on the outside, a beautiful cranberry red with white aluminum siding and a grayish stair case leading up to a snow white door sporting coal black burglar bars. There was a window on the second floor and one porch window that had plastic on it.

After looking at the house from the outside, one would get the illusion that the house was well heated. One would be wrong.

I called CHA and asked them what type of program did they have set up concerning problems like Fleming’s.

“That is a big problem,” CHA spokesman Derek Hill said.

Hill talked about the Service Connectors, and the CHANCE program that is no longer in progress.

CHANCE was a collaboration to help residents pay their electric bills between the housing authority and Commonwealth Edison. They created the program after I published articles in Residents’ Journal about the ongoing utility bill dilemma.

Under CHANCE, both of the entities would pay 1/3rd of the bill, with the residents paying the remaining 1/3rd. But the program wasn’t designed to help residents with high bills like Fleming.

Many of the residents’ bills that I have seen are $1000 to $22,000 and sometimes more.

Hill referred me to CHA communication official Kim Johnson. I asked Johnson if the CHANCE program to help low-income residents pay their utility bills was still in existence.

“I don’t think so. I do believe that it has expired. After all, there was a window to that program. I couldn’t really tell you offhand for sure if it is over with, but I will check and see,” Johnson said.

CHA spokesman Derek Hill told me that CHA had started a new program to help the residents pay their utilities. I asked Johnson if she knew about the program Hill was talking about.

‘I’m not familiar with that. So I could also check and see about that, but right now I can say I don’t know,” Johnson said.

I told Johnson about Fleming’s situation, and after much communication between Johnson and CHAC, the company that is contracted by CHA to run the voucher program, and Rayne Martin, CHA Relocation Specialist, Fleming’s voucher was not taken away plus her utilities were reinstalled.

But she is on the hook for an almost $14,000 light bill. She still worries she will end up homeless because of it.

“Sometime I still wish that I was back in the projects, I didn’t have all these problems,” Fleming told me.

Problems Unresolved
Even though Fleming and her family have utilities again, there are countless other families going through similar situations who don’t know where to turn.

I recently received a letter from a young lady who didn’t want to use her name. She has been without gas or lights for about the same amount of time as Fleming. She burns candles in order to keep light in her house.

Another family that relocated out of the Robert Taylor Homes is led by Rochelle Williams, a separated young mother of four who is on the verge of losing her voucher.

Rochelle WIlliams, a mother of four and a former resident of the Robert Taylor Homes, is at risk of losing housing for her family because of paperwork problems. Photo by Beauty Turner

CHAC said she lied about her household income. She showed me documents she used to try to prove to CHAC that her husband, who was working at the time that she received her voucher, was no longer living in her household. She showed case management his State Identification, a valid lease to his new apartment, plus a legally stamped letter stating that he was no longer living with Williams. But after a hearing, her voucher was still taken. Her case manager at CHAC is also her landlord.

Williams, who still is paying her portion of the rent, is living in her house in spite of the fact that she lost her voucher. She has two electric bills in her home and she can not afford to pay either due to not having an income.

What do low-income families do when they find themselves living without resources? Even though the low-income public housing buildings are coming down, prices concerning rent, gas, lights, food and transportation are not.

These conversations left me asking why CHA would give people who have no income a Section 8 voucher.

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