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Reported ArticleHousing

Squatters Ask Chicago: Why So Many Vacancies?

Officials in Chicago are struggling to address the city's homelessness and housing crises. So why does the Chicago Public Housing Authority have one of the highest rates of vacancy in the country?

Chicago neighborhood and skyline. Photo by Stephen M. Scott for flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In late August, a group of Chicago residents were forcibly removed from a building they called home, a long-vacant property owned by the Chicago Housing Authority. The residents were part of a rotating group of squatters who had occupied the home for 20 months, a group that included a housing activist and people who had been living in tents in a nearby homeless encampment.

For two years prior to the occupation, the home—a picturesque two-story property in the quickly gentrifying Humboldt Park neighborhood—had been vacant. It’s one of more than 2,000 housing units under the Chicago Housing Authority’s ownership that lie empty, according to city data.

“I needed a place to live. And there was just so much vacancy in the area,” says Wilson Mather-Glass, a 26-year-old server and former building occupant. “The city had been intentionally and systematically letting a series of houses basically rot, when they could have easily, with very minimal effort become viable homes for people again.”

While the housing authority had planned on demolishing the property due to structural concerns, the squatters say they were able to fix it up for a few hundred dollars. They even got the building connected to water and utilities and paid those bills regularly.

Over the course of the year-plus occupation, the property—located on Washtenaw Avenue—housed 12 people (never more than four at a time) and several pets. It also served as a place where homeless encampment residents connected with housing activists, becoming a site for mutual aid and discussion about the ongoing crisis of vacancies that persist in a city with rising rents and homelessness.

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The occupation had become a protest, with residents being inspired by similar housing occupations in Philadelphia’s public housing authority and another occupation by mothers in Oakland, California. Unlike those two cities, however, the Humboldt Park occupation ended with no concessions from the city or other housing providers, at least one arrest, and all members of the home evicted.

With elected officials struggling to address the city’s homelessness and housing crises, former residents and local activists ask, why is Chicago’s public housing authority producing vacancies at one of the highest rates in the country?

In response to questions from Shelterforce/Next City, a spokesperson for the Chicago Housing Authority wrote, “At any given time, a portion of CHA units are vacant for a number of reasons, including scheduled redevelopment, unit turn work (e.g. painting or minor repairs of a newly vacated unit to prepare it for the next renters), and units undergoing more extensive capital improvement work and evaluation for future use. The amount of time it takes to remedy a unit varies based on the extent of the work needed. As units become available for occupancy, they are offered to applicants on CHA’s public housing waiting lists, which are open and subject to HUD regulations.” CHA did not provide a specific reason for the vacancy at the home that Mather-Glass occupied, nor residents’ claim that the home was easily made habitable.

CHA presented data to Shelterforce/Next City showing that it served thousands more families in 2022 than it did in 1999, mainly because it expanded its use of vouchers even as its public housing stock dwindled. In 1999, there were 24,490 households in public housing. In 2022, there were 18,079 households in public housing. During the same period, the number of households using vouchers increased from 49,921 to 63,449.

Chicago’s High Vacancy Rate

A report by the Chicago Housing Authority’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) earlier this year found that the agency was not registering units as vacant when they were no longer occupied, in violation of a city ordinance. The report said the agency’s real vacancy rate was at 14.6 percent, well above HUD’s standard of 4 percent.

The OIG report was initiated when the office received a tip about another scattered-site single family home owned by the housing authority, one that had been vacant for more than 10 years and become infested with raccoons. (A neighbor asked for it to be demolished.)

A previous vacancy survey from 2017 found that once a household moved out of a unit, that unit remained vacant for an average of 13 months. That meant $2.9 million of potential rental income lost.

In its response to Shelterforce/Next City, a CHA spokesperson pointed to its rebuttal appended to the OIG report, which defends the agency’s own calculations: “Management strongly objects to the characterization that CHA uses its own formulae for calculating occupancy. While the OIG may question the soundness of HUD’s methodology, CHA must continue to use and comply with HUD’s prescribed MASS methodology for calculating and reporting vacancy rates.”

CHA’s 2022 Moving to Work report says that 1,220 public housing units are “offline,” that 1,080 of these units are “pending redevelopment,” and 140 units are being used for “non-dwelling purposes.”

Emma Tamplin, a researcher who has been tracking the public housing authority’s vacancies, attributes the agency’s high vacancy rate in part to incentives and lax enforcement of a federal program that allows housing authorities to convert Section 9 public housing units into funding to be used for other purposes. The program, Moving to Work, does not require the housing authority to maintain occupancy of a housing unit when this happens.

It’s part of a national trend of privatization incentivized by the federal government. Programs like Rental Assistance Demonstration allow housing authorities to lease buildings to private management and use the money saved to fund maintenance.

Moving to Work, which began in 1996, allows public housing authorities exemptions from certain rules and allows them to pilot programs as long as they save the housing agency money, encourage heads of households to work, and allow residents “greater choice” to move to other neighborhoods, often through a Section 8 voucher. It also allows public housing agencies to combine funds for capital repairs, housing vouchers, and public housing into one general fund and use those funds with less restrictions. In theory, the program is meant to help residents climb the socioeconomic ladder.

But in practice, a 2017 analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Moving to Work programs across the country had led more than 60,000 fewer families with housing assistance. While some of the funds saved by housing authorities can be used on repairs, administrative budgets and building affordable housing, in some cases the money was merely added to the agencies’ reserves and left unspent, the report found.

Participating agencies had ended up with fewer public housing units through the program according to the analysis: “HUD data show that the number of public housing units at [Moving to Work] agencies has dropped much more rapidly than at non-[Moving to Work] agencies.” And as for moving residents into better neighborhoods, “[Moving to Work] agencies were, if anything, less successful than comparison agencies at enabling low-income families to move to lower-poverty areas,” according to the CBPP analysis.

The Chicago Housing Authority has taken advantage of the program to the detriment of residents, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which found that by 2014, the housing authority had accumulated $400,000 in reserves by issuing 13,000 fewer housing vouchers. The agency was diverting federal funds meant for vouchers to “non-cash” investments, then reporting a deficit each year from 2008-2012 as it built up reserves, according to the report. According to the report, “After excluding non-cash outlays from the CHA’s expenditures, the data show that the CHA ran an annual surplus averaging $90 million each year between FY2004 and FY2012.”

While the agency is now issuing more vouchers, Tamplin’s analysis found that the agency was still underspending on planned new housing construction and maintenance. In 2021, for instance, the agency spent $31.8 million less than what it budgeted for maintenance and repairs.

A 2022 CHA report on its Moving to Work programs stated that the agency had implemented work requirements over a decade ago and in 2022 increased minimum rents under the program to cut costs, as well as increased examinations of resident income—which determines their rent.

When buildings are left empty, CHA can sell or dispose of the property. In theory, the agency can use the money saved on repairs or to build more housing, but the agency’s documents show much of its money is unspent. (A CHA spokesperson told Shelterforce/Next City that the Washtenaw Avenue home was not eligible for Moving to Work because it was a scattered site project, or a unit blended in with other private market residences.)

According to the CHA Moving to Work report, the agency used the money it saved to issue $324 million in bonds in 2018, $35 million of which went to pay off debt service, $164 million of which went to fund repairs and new construction. The $126 million left over are held in government securities.

Enforcing Vacancy

CHA had previously listed a plan to demolish the Washtenaw Avenue housing before, citing structural deficiency. Yet residents of the 20-month occupation say the building was in fairly good shape when they occupied it and was easily repairable. The building kept them warm in winter.

Residents were served with an order of eviction on May 16. The Cook County Sheriff’s office tried to evict residents on June 21, but were unable to as residents had already filed an appeal.

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The group occupying the building say they were aggressively woken up on the morning of Aug. 21 when the sheriff’s department broke down the door, dismantled a free store in the front yard, and did not allow residents to take their belongings. The Cook County Sheriff’s office had not yet listed an eviction schedule for the week, they say. Residents were still preparing an appeal of their eviction before sheriff’s officers arrived. “The Sheriff left the premises before residents were able to show them this paperwork and advocate for their constitutional right to court,” according to Tamplin.

The residents returned two days later for a press conference and to claim their belongings. “We are seeing people being evicted out of their homes, left out on the streets,” county board commissioner Anthony Quezada said, holding a megaphone at the Aug. 23 press conference in front of the Washtenaw Avenue home.

“It is a shame that this unit has been vacant and not developed to serve a community need for years. It is shameful that we keep exporting these resources to private hands to profit. Housing should not be a commodity; housing should be a right.” Quezada exhorted CHA officers and police to allow people to reclaim their belongings from the building as he watched them being evicted.

Video of the tense event shared with Shelterforce/Next City shows Mather-Glass inside the home, speaking on a microphone connected to a speaker system, struggling to get through a pre-written statement citing the housing agency’s many vacancies as CHA officers clad in bulletproof vests rush them and other residents out. In the video, other members of the group carry boxes of belongings out of the home. At one point, a young resident of the home tries to re-enter the building but is grabbed by a CHA officer. The resident struggles for a moment before falling to the floor.

Mather-Glass, who uses they/them pronouns, says they are in touch with all the former residents, some of whom remain unhoused. Mather-Glass is currently staying with various friends but has not found long-term housing and has a court hearing in connection with their arrest during the August eviction. “Obviously, people are struggling but it seems like people are immediately physically safe,” they said.

Among the things that bothers Mather-Glass about the city’s enforcement around this perpetually vacant property is the sheer force and manpower it took to remove a few people from a house the city is not using. About 20 people showed up to carry it out, including members of the Chicago Police Department, CHA police, and CHA’s private management company staff.

“The amount of people that were on payroll to evict us on that day, the labor costs alone well exceeded the amount of money that it would take to set up a home like that,” Mather-Glass says.

This story was published through a collaboration with Shelterforce and Next City. Next City is a nonprofit news outlet that publishes solutions to the problems that oppress people in cities, inspiring social, economic, and environmental change through journalism and events around the world. 

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