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The Chicago Housing Authority’s sleeping giant

The CHA provides Section 8 vouchers to tens of thousands of low-income households. Is the agency trying to keep them from realizing their collective power?

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PAM WISHBOW
  • Pam Wishbow

On a Saturday afternoon in January, a handful of mostly middle-aged men and women gathered in a conference room on the tenth floor of the red-steel-framed skyscraper at 60 E. Van Buren. Participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, they'd come to the headquarters of the Chicago Housing Authority for a long-awaited meeting with CEO Eugene Jones Jr. In addition to Jones's blessing, they expected to get a check for $850 to file paperwork to officially become a 501(c)3 nonprofit: the National Housing Residents Association.

The CHA is Chicago's historically maligned public housing landlord, but it also oversees the administration of the voucher program, which subsidizes low-income tenants' rent in the private housing market. Public housing residents have long been able to communicate their concerns to the CHA through elected tenant councils and a citywide representative body—in fact the citywide body, the Central Advisory Council, receives more than $1 million annually from the agency to run programs and services for residents, compensate board members, and maintain an office and staff. Yet even as the size of the voucher program has grown—vouchered tenants now outnumber public housing residents in Chicago four to one—the 47,000 households in that program haven't had the benefit of similar representation. The members of the National Housing Residents Association were set on changing that.

When the group arrived, Jones was already in the conference room. Over the previous nine months they'd held many meetings to define a structure for the group and determine the scope of their work; they'd also obtained articles of incorporation from the secretary of state's office. "It was a relief because it's like finally all the hard work paid off," Valeria Harris, a certified nursing assistant who rents an apartment in Ravenswood, recalls of her feelings that morning. "We had two or three different bylaws we wanted him to look over, we had programming we wanted him to see, a mission statement, a vision statement."

The meeting didn't go according to plan.

"It was just terrible," Harris says. Instead of signing off on their progress, Jones told the group "we need to get our s-h-i-t together," she says, spelling out the word. He added, she says, that "we're unprofessional, we're not ready, we need to find out what it is that we really want, and if we don't like it we can resign." Jones then stormed out.

Harris was shocked—not just by the content of the message but by Jones's tone. "I felt so humiliated," she recalls. Four other members of the group confirmed Harris's description of the encounter. Jones declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, and didn't respond to these claims in a brief written statement he offered instead.

Harris and most of the others took Jones's behavior as a sign that the CHA wasn't invested in their success as an organization, but opinions diverged about what had caused him to go from an attitude of support and enthusiasm toward their venture to one of deprecation and disrespect. Some thought it had to do with months of internal squabbling and disorganization among members; others suspected snitches and saboteurs among their numbers; still others had the feeling that the CHA had no intention of letting the group become official in the first place.

In the weeks that followed, it wasn't clear whether the council was still sanctioned to meet. Harris and Jackie Paige, an outspoken voucher holder who'd long been interested in forming some sort of representative body for Section 8 tenants, interpreted Jones's behavior at the January meeting as the latest sign of his desire to thwart the group. Though not everyone in the group agreed, a few council members thought they saw a pattern: When the council was first selected by the CHA in the spring of 2016, they were told they'd be able to work with an attorney to establish themselves as a nonprofit in order to receive agency funding. Yet the attorney Jones connected them with, former Chicago Board of Education vice president Jesse Ruiz, didn't seem interested in them. Paige says they'd asked Jones to provide group members with organizational and leadership training opportunities, since most members had no previous experience being on a board or running a council. That never happened either. When they had nevertheless reached the threshold of officialdom, it felt like the rug had been yanked out from under them.

At the CHA board meeting the following month, Paige, a confident 5'8", stood up to object. "I am here because the council has been stymied at every turn in our attempts to formalize ourselves into a resident advisory board," she said, reading from a prepared statement. (Her remarks hadn't been approved by other NHRA members, and some disagreed with her public airing of grievances.) "[Jones] informed us that we need to get our sugar-honey-iced-tea together and declared that he was the boss. I am sure this is not what HUD intended when it gave [public housing authorities] the right to appoint a resident organization." She was referring to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's designation for groups representing people assisted by housing authorities, which authorities are obligated to give resources to and include in their planning activities.

"If we are truly to be an independent organization—" Paige continued, but just then the CHA timekeeper rang the bell signaling the end of her two minutes of public comment. She folded her notes, thanked the commissioners, and walked away.

The commissioners issued no response, but when Paige, Harris, and a few other NHRA members arrived at the CHA offices for their monthly meeting a few days later, they found the conference room locked and no one expecting them. They met in the hallway. When they requested a meeting room for March, they were denied. In an e-mail obtained by the Reader, Housing Choice Voucher Program director Karen Humphrey wrote, "Pursuant to the request and direction of CEO, Eugene Jones, the March 25th NHRA meeting is being cancelled." Finally, in April, all members received a letter from Jones stating that the agency would no longer recognize them as the resident advisory board for voucher holders. Jones disbanded the group—just like he'd disbanded a previous voucher tenants' council a year prior.

In recent months the CHA has quietly formed yet another iteration of this council. Will the third time be the charm?

PAM WISHBOW
  • Pam Wishbow

Chicago has a rich legacy of tenant organizing in public housing. In the 1980s, Cabrini-Green resident leader Marion Stamps directed massive get-out-the-vote efforts to help elect Mayor Harold Washington. Later, residents of the Wentworth Gardens public housing complex successfully fought the razing of their community in the face of encroaching development around the new White Sox stadium. The National Public Housing Museum owes its existence to the diligent lobbying of west-side public housing leader Deverra Beverly. And in 2000, at the start of Mayor Richard M. Daley's $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, it was legal action by the Central Advisory Council that codified displaced public housing residents' "right of return" to new and rehabbed units.

But public housing is no longer the primary means by which the CHA provides housing assistance to low-income families. The vast majority of the people on its rolls are voucher holders living in the private rental market. Following decades of bad planning and institutional neglect, which earned Chicago's public housing complexes a reputation for being the country's worst "vertical ghettos," the Plan for Transformation sought to remake the city's subsidized housing landscape both physically and politically. Most high-rise public housing was demolished and Section 8 subsidies were expanded; the shift reflected national policy trends spurred by the view that local governments just weren't capable of being good landlords for the poor. Beginning in the 1990s, policymakers increasingly argued that the physical design of public housing (rather than segregationist politics or inept bureaucratic administration) had led to residents becoming a disenfranchised underclass in most American cities. Vouchers were seen as a way to roll back government involvement in the housing market and reconnect low-income households to the existing institutions of their cities. The various consequences of the Plan for Transformation—from mass displacement to entrenched segregation to the rise of private companies profiteering off the voucher program—have been amply documented. But an additional ramification has been the erosion of organized tenant power.

With two million participants nationwide, the Housing Choice Voucher Program is the largest rental housing subsidy program in America. Though it barely makes a dent in addressing the need for housing assistance—42,000 households are on the waiting list for vouchers in Chicago alone—there are enough people in the program to constitute a formidable interest group or voting bloc. It's enough people to sway elections and lobby for policy change on a local, regional, and national level. And there's a lot of money at stake. The Section 8 program brings some $430 million in federal funds to landlords in Chicago every year (on top of the $130 million that accounts for tenants' contributions to their rent, which can't be more than 30 percent of their incomes). Despite voucher holders' racial, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity, their lives are governed by the same set of administrative rules, which are often difficult to navigate. And the need for organized resident representation is clearly there.

"The majority of our clients are HCV," says Francine Washington, the president of the Central Advisory Council—which technically represents only public housing residents. People in the voucher program contact her office, Washington says, because they don't know where else to turn: "We get 20 to 30 calls per week: people having problems with their landlords, having problems with security deposits, landlords charging money under the table."

She says the CAC tries to do what it can to address voucher residents' needs, but that "dealing with HCV is not an easy task." Perhaps the biggest hurdle to working with vouchered households is that they're dispersed and anonymized in the wider rental market. There are neighborhoods on the south and west sides with disproportionate concentrations of vouchers, but even next-door neighbors with vouchers may not know about one another. Unlike public housing buildings, in which organizers often went door to door to mobilize tenants, vouchers are invisible, with no obvious physical landscape around which to rally.

The members of the first two voucher resident advisory boards convened by the CHA knew this all too well. They had personal experience with the injustices and inconveniences of the program. And like their predecessors in public housing, they understood the power and potential of mobilizing their constituents—if only they could find an effective way to meet and communicate.

In the 1980s Cabrini-Green tenant leader Marion Stamps oversaw massive get-out-the-vote efforts to help elect Mayor Harold Washington.
  • In the 1980s Cabrini-Green tenant leader Marion Stamps oversaw massive get-out-the-vote efforts to help elect Mayor Harold Washington.

The duty of public housing authorities to involve voucher holder representatives in resident advisory boards was codified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1998. But guidelines for how representatives are to be chosen, and what they're entitled to, are vague.

Voucher resident advisory boards are supposed to represent tenants in the program, but don't have to be elected; authorities can handpick board members as long as they use a "reasonable process." While HUD requires that public housing tenant representatives receive $25 per occupied unit each year to organize activities and programs, there's no such similar mandate for voucher RABs. Voucher RABs have to be provided with "reasonable means" to connect with the families they represent and learn about the workings of the authority, but what form those means take isn't spelled out. The only input from the advisory boards that housing authorities are required to take into account is their ideas about the agency's annual plan.

There are few immediate consequences for the CHA if it doesn't follow these rules. Though in theory, HUD could cut funding if it finds noncompliance with its regulations for tenant participation, this has never happened in Chicago. In fact, much of the federal oversight of the CHA has been drastically scaled back as part of the Plan for Transformation.

In spring 2009, under the leadership of Lewis Jordan, the CHA decided to form the first voucher resident advisory board, a group of about 20 people that met quarterly. Jordan, now head of the Marin Housing Authority in California, declined to comment for this story; according to CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan, no one remains in the agency's administration who could speak about the motivations behind creating that first group. But by 2009 the CHA's voucher program had grown by 40 percent since the beginning of the Plan for Transformation, from 25,400 to 36,000 households.

The "reasonable process" to choose representatives for a resident advisory board was allowing anyone interested to come and join what the CHA began calling the HCV Participant Council. In its 2013 annual plan (the first to make any mention of the group), the agency noted that the council was made up of people "who reflect and are representative of the interests of all families" in the voucher program. The council was described as a forum for sharing information about the CHA's activities and helping the agency develop "strategies to improve the overall administration of the HCV Program."

In practice, council participants say, the group never seemed to be taken seriously, and meetings were often disorganized. "I was on it for almost five years, and every time we came, we had the same conversations," says Kim Curtis, a South Shore resident and a voucher holder since 2002. "I got involved because I was under the impression that our voices would make a difference. But I came to find out that they do not at all." A precinct captain for former alderman Sandi Jackson who's also been involved with the disability rights group Access Living, Curtis had been civically active for years. She says it didn't seem to her like the Participant Council had been formed with the intention of becoming a well-functioning organization. "It was just bizarre." Other council members were similarly concerned.

Curtis was particularly frustrated by the lack of internal organization and the lack of a clear mandate since she knew other voucher holders who were dealing with significant problems, such as living in slum conditions, without electricity, or in foreclosed properties. "The council, from our understanding, was to be formed so we could take the complaints of the residents, direct that [to the CHA], and say we don't think that's fair," she says. But the mechanism to do that was never put into place. "To me we were just a front [for CHA] to say: 'We formed them!' But nothing that we said or what we did ever counted—it never became anything."

Curtis added that when council members inquired about office space and stipends, they were rebuffed.

Still, some council members sacrificed not just time but money to participate. Their frustration with the directionless meetings and squabbling within the group was particularly acute. Alicia Avila, a preschool teacher who'd had a voucher since 2000, took unpaid breaks from her job to make some of the meetings. "I knew I was going to miss 30 minutes of my pay for this meeting," she says. "I was trying to make that extra sacrifice and I felt like it should be productive."

Avila felt it was important for the CHA to connect more with Latinos, who have historically been sidelined by the agency. She wanted to make it easier for voucher holders, especially those who don't have a good command of English, to communicate with the CHA. She imagined a simplified telephone process or more opportunities to meet with agency representatives in the neighborhoods rather than having to go downtown. All of this would obviously require resources.

"They didn't really ask us our opinion, it was more like we showed up and listened to them," says Avila, adding that a few CHA representatives frequently came to Participant Council meetings to talk about this or that program. "It was like, this thing might happen—what are your thoughts?" she recalls. "It was very informal, it wasn't well organized."

Curtis and Avila weren't the only ones who felt that way. Around 2011, when the Central Advisory Council learned about their counterpart organization dedicated to voucher holders, they invited the group to use their office space in Bronzeville. Washington, the CAC president, recalls that most members in the council seemed to have no idea what they were doing, and that the CHA staffers working with them didn't either. "They needed help to figure out how to be an organization," she says.

The CAC's attorney at the time, Robert Whitfield, was more concerned that the CHA was falling short on its obligations to provide resources to the Participant Council. "It was always my impression that the CHA didn't really want [voucher holders] to be represented," he says, because it would mean "they'd have to pony up more money for them."

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By 2014, the Participant Council still had no offices, no funding, and no direction. Some members began organizing in a smaller group outside the purview of the CHA. Jackie Paige was among them. In her words, this smaller group wanted to give the agency "pushback" on some of its policies, such as one specifying that voucher holders have only 90 days to find a new apartment when they move and risk losing their voucher if they don't succeed. They also wanted more transparency in the process through which landlords and tenants are evaluated for eligibility to participate in the voucher program.

At a community meeting organized by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization that year, one member of this splinter group talked with Noah Moskowitz, then a tenant organizer at MTO, about her experiences and frustrations with the voucher program. He immediately saw potential for a mass organizing campaign among voucher holders.

Moskowitz came to learn that voucher holders often put up with bad landlords, discrimination, and crime in their buildings because they're afraid that reporting problems might jeopardize their voucher. "In theory you should be able to organize these people in huge numbers and get the CHA to change the program in a way that's much more effective and liberatory," he says.

He began meeting on a regular basis with Paige, other members of the splinter group, and a few more voucher holders he recruited. After a few meetings that required some attendees to travel "crazy distances," the group decided to split up into "regional branches," with leaders on the north, south, and west sides responsible for growing numbers in their communities. "The idea was we'd be canvassing satellite offices, talking to voucher holders coming and going," Moskowitz says. "The problem was we never got enough people."

It's typical of any community organizing effort, he says, to see high rates of attrition and turnover. But when organizing poor and working-class people, the precariousness of people's personal lives makes it even harder to maintain ranks. Plus, many voucher holders work full-time (in Chicago, a family of four living on $61,500 or less qualifies for housing assistance from CHA) and can't sacrifice a lot of hours.

"People are struggling with paying medical bills, making rent, finding jobs," Moskowitz says. "The key to dealing with that is having enough of an organizing infrastructure, reaching out to enough new people and following up with them so that you may lose a lot of people but over time the amount of people participating is increasing."

At its peak, the splinter group comprised about 20 people. At one point they packed a CHA board meeting and testified on behalf of several voucher holders who were struggling with specific issues. This "direct action" worked: one of the commissioners talked privately with the voucher holders after the meeting, Moskowitz says, and the problems were ultimately resolved.

But even though helping a handful of voucher holders address individual problems was an important small win, the lack of funding for this organizing work, and the sheer magnitude of the task, ultimately defeated Moskowitz and the Participant Council splinter group. Moskowitz left MTO and could no longer help the voucher holders on a volunteer basis. Others who had the capacity to lead couldn't make the time, or were turned off by internecine squabbling.

Paige says she felt she could let those efforts go because the arrival of Eugene Jones to head up the CHA in the fall of 2015 offered a glimmer of hope for a revitalized and sufficiently empowered Participant Council."Mr. Jones was someone who I thought was doing his job and a man of integrity," she says. "[He] was saying to us: Look, this is a whole new era and we're gonna try something different."

Shortly after he took over the agency, Jones disbanded the old, ineffective Participant Council. In a statement to the Reader, the agency said, "It was determined that the group was no longer meeting the goals and vision for which it was established and participation among members often fell short of what was needed to ensure a cohesive, well-functioning entity."

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Jones arrived in Chicago with a mixed reputation. In previous stints leading housing agencies in Toronto, Detroit, and Indianapolis, he became known as a fierce advocate for tenants and a hands-on manager. But he also had a track record for apparently impulsive decision-making (particularly in hiring and firing), favoritism, and questionable financial management. Jones resigned as head of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in 2014 after a 111-page report from the city's ombudsman chastised him for "arbitrary" use of authority and creating a "climate of fear" at the agency.

Soon after disbanding the first Participant Council, Jones put out a call for applicants for a new one in the HCV program's quarterly newsletter and on the agency's website. Rather than letting anyone join the group, the CHA's new "reasonable process" for choosing members was having those interested fill out a six-page application. Out of 116 who applied, 13 people were chosen, including Jackie Paige, Alicia Avila, and one other member of the first council.

At first, it seemed like the new council was in a better position to succeed. Jones told the group they'd need to become a nonprofit organization in order to draw funding from the CHA and have a structure of accountability with a board of directors. Members say he also promised offices, staff, and other resources once they got themselves up and running. They decided to drop the name Participant Council and instead call the body the National Housing Residents Association. (The name was aspirational; the group had no immediate plan to go national.)

"It was more focused. They had specific goals we had to meet within a year," Avila says. Yet she began to see that, despite Jones's vision and advocacy, the CHA didn't appear committed to the success of this group either. Or the agency didn't understand what such a commitment would require.

"We had to come up with bylaws, rules, a budget, office space, how much we realistically needed to run it, to have staff," she says. "We had a great idea but we really didn't have guidance and support from the CHA. We definitely needed a more hands-on approach." Most group members didn't have experience setting up a company or being on a board of directors. Most also didn't know one another and had no preexisting bonds of trust to build on.

CHA general counsel James Bebley did introduce the group to politically connected attorney Jesse Ruiz (now president of the Chicago Park District board), but they didn't get the sense that he was interested in helping them. "It seemed like he never really made time for us," Avila says.

For his part, Ruiz says he met with members of the group for an initial consultation and was ready to help them pro bono. He acknowledges that he had to cancel one subsequent meeting unexpectedly, but says after that he "never heard from them again." There "wasn't a lot of consensus among the folks" he met with, Ruiz says. "I remember a lot of discussion about whether or not they were going to pay themselves. . . . Most directors of nonprofit organizations don't get paid."

Paige, Avila, Harris, and others involved with the NHRA don't dispute their internal discord, or their preoccupation with whether they'd be paid. The same issues that plagued the first Participant Council—interpersonal conflicts, distrust, and jealousy—resurfaced. But they also point out that group members didn't have the right organizational training to manage these disagreements. And most couldn't afford to work as community organizers, CHA consultants, or tenant representatives without compensation. Besides, their counterparts on the CAC are paid for their time and labor—why shouldn't they be? "We're asking to be on the same level," Paige says.

Some NHRA members, on the other hand, felt that the CHA was doing more than enough to support them. "I'm probably the only person that felt the CHA bent over backwards," says Patrick Barberousse, who had recently received a voucher after eight years on the waiting list. He was eager to help participants understand their rights and the thicket of rules governing the voucher program. "[Jones] was accessible. Everyone had his cell number and he would respond to them. Everyone had his e-mail address and he would respond to them."

Barberousse doesn't agree that the group could have used more hand-holding, and says Jones rightly wanted to see members learn to resolve their own conflicts and build consensus "because we're going to have to be a working unit and should begin to rely on each other's strengths." He also felt participation in the group should be a volunteer effort, to ensure that members would really work for the population they represented rather than out of self-interest.

As months passed, the group spent a lot of time debating how to structure meetings and establish order. Some were intensely preoccupied with the construction of agendas; others tended to dominate conversations at the meetings. Elections seemed key to many, not only to establish themselves as legitimate leaders of the vouchered population, but also to make it known to everyone in the program that the council existed. But there was disagreement about when would be the appropriate time to hold them. Natural leaders emerged and alliances formed, but the group struggled to channel its energies in a productive direction. People sometimes made decisions (such as purchasing supplies) or spoke to the CHA on behalf of the group without consulting the entire council.

"We tried to establish what kind of structure and committees we were going to have," says Michelle Joiner, who joined the council bursting with ideas. "But bickering ensued." She had been excited by the possibility of organizing voucher tenants in the legacy of her aunt Helen Finner, who for years led the tenant council at the Ida B. Wells Homes and was part of the Central Advisory Council. But she also knew that effective leadership and organization requires resources and training. "The Central Advisory Council has all of this interpersonal bickering and rancor, but they have a structure that keeps that contained and they've proven that the structure can work."

Most members who agreed to speak with the Reader thought the shortcomings of the members were secondary to those of the CHA. Most are convinced that Jones sabotaged the council, though there's some disagreement about whether it was intentional.

Paige believes Jones used the shortcomings of the members as an excuse to not engage them in the work they were supposed be doing: consulting the agency on its planned programs and activities. For instance, she was angry that the agency didn't work with the council on a proposal for a pilot program, developed in 2016, to set an eight-year limit on vouchers for 100 volunteer households from the waiting list and provide intense social services to see whether the families could become self-sufficient in that time. "Even as we were in the stages of organizing ourselves we still could have functioned, he still could have gotten our opinion, and we still could have gone to our community and gotten input." Though the CHA had made public announcements about the creation of the council and told voucher holders in its quarterly newsletter that they'd soon learn the identities of their representatives, this never happened.

Joiner didn't see nefarious intentions but felt that Jones had unrealistic expectations for the group. "People on the voucher have challenged lives," she said. "People are economically unstable, that's why they're on the voucher. Myself and another person didn't have Internet access and a computer. Some people didn't have bus fare to come to meetings. That may be something difficult for Mr. Jones and the staff to comprehend."

Joiner says she couldn't understand why, given the agency's vast resources and the personal and political cachet of its executives, the CHA couldn't provide the council with the training its members so obviously needed. "There's no way we would be able to effectively serve our constituents," she says. "If we can't get information and resources for us, now how are we going to get it for our constituents?"

Barberousse said he didn't blame Jones or CHA for dissociating themselves from the NHRA and didn't take it personally. "I'm shocked it went on this long," he says, adding that not being part of this group isn't stopping him from bringing concerns to the agency or advocating for fellow program participants. He believes CHA officials sincerely "want to be held accountable," but that they made the mistake of not conducting thorough interviews with the people they picked for the council to gauge their intentions, motivations, and commitment. To him, the attitude of some NHRA members—that the agency owed them something—is symptomatic of a larger problem: that too many voucher holders view this subsidy as something they're entitled to.

Jones didn't agree to be interviewed or respond to these allegations and speculations. In a written statement he said only: "My vision for the council has always been for CHA to obtain meaningful feedback on the HCV program from the people we serve through the program. . . . This is something that is very important to me personally. The people who we serve are uniquely qualified to tell us how we're doing; we need that input to do our jobs well."

After Jones disbanded the second Participant Council, most members went their separate ways. But Paige and Harris kept at it. Determined to see a functioning, funded resident advisory board to represent the city's voucher holders, they've lodged a complaint against Jones and the CHA with HUD. They've even contemplated a lawsuit.

"We're not going to stop and we're going to be here long after Eugene Jones is gone," Paige says. "We're still going to be organizing." Reflecting on the constant turnover at the helm of the agency and the durable resident leadership in public housing, she adds: "[Voucher holders] can get powerful too—it's just that we have to teach our community their voice. They don't understand the power that they have. Once we organize and let them see something good happen from organizing, then they'll understand what it is that they have."

Elected tenant leaders from Chicago’s public housing projects took legal action in the face of the Plan for Transformation to assure residents’ rights to return to new and rehabbed units. - JOHN H. WHITE
  • John H. White
  • Elected tenant leaders from Chicago’s public housing projects took legal action in the face of the Plan for Transformation to assure residents’ rights to return to new and rehabbed units.

Sitting in a small conference room with a shiny, round wooden table and soft leather office chairs, surrounded by framed black-and-white photos of Chicago's public housing projects from the agency's archives, CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan and chief housing choice voucher officer Kathryn Ludwig disputed the idea that the Participant Council, in its past or current forms, was ever meant to be a representative body despite being a resident advisory board. They were baffled to hear that former members wanted to hold elections.

"They don't have constituents," Ludwig says. "I think of them as consultants, like they're helping us." She went on to say that she always considered the elected Central Advisory Council a totally different entity than the Participant Council: "There's not that same expectation that they are representative of the entire 47,000 households." Though it's true that HUD regulations don't specify that voucher resident advisory boards should be elected, they clearly say that RABs should "reflect and represent residents." Ludwig didn't explain why CHA's expectations for public housing and voucher RABs differed.

She did emphasize, however, that voucher holders are no different than other renters in the city, and that the agency encourages HCV participants to embrace their interconnectedness with the wider community. "You're a citizen of the city of Chicago and you have the same rights and responsibilities as other renters," she says. "Yes, you're a voucher holder, but let's not forget all these other things that are available to you and that you should be taking advantage of."

Notwithstanding this view, Ludwig says that in June, the CHA went back to its applicant pool for the second Participant Council and picked 14 new members for a new board, which they're now calling the Participant Advisory Board. This time around, Ludwig says, they're hoping to avoid the mistakes of the past by meeting more frequently and taking a more hands-on approach.

"I think we've realized they need a little bit of guidance," Ludwig says. "We're doing a lot of training with them, going chapter by chapter [through the administrative plan] and answering their questions." She said that Jones isn't as personally involved with this group.

Asked whether there were plans to provide the board with funding, Ludwig said it's "possible," but it's still too early to tell. "They've said, 'Hey, let's take this slow,' " she added. "They're the ones who are telling us, 'Hey, we want to get more training from you guys before we go to that next level and start talking about budgets.' "

So far, the group hasn't been introduced to the tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans they're supposed to represent. The agency didn't respond to the Reader's request to be connected with anyone on this new board. It remains unclear what exactly they'll be tasked with accomplishing.   v

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