The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 8, 2011

The Chicago Housing Authority - An Uncertain Future

July 8, 2011

As I wrote in April, for more than two decades, I’ve been studying the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) progress in overcoming challenges with its housing, management, and residents. In the late 1990s, the CHA launched its ambitious “Plan for Transformation,” aiming to replace its notorious high-rises with new mixed-income communities. There is no question that the physical changes are dramatic, and, our research has shown, many former residents are living in better circumstances.

But there’s an important mostly untold story here too—the evolution of the CHA from one of the nation’s worst-managed housing authorities to a well-functioning bureaucracy.  Too bad that this narrative will turn partly on the resignation last month of Lewis Jordan, the well-regarded CEO of the agency, who resigned amid questions about his use of corporate credit cards.

Jordan was the CHA’s third director in six years and, like many who have worked with the transformed CHA, I worry about what will happen now. Different leaders bring different styles and priorities—Jordan, a former CHA resident himself, had a deep commitment to supporting robust and comprehensive resident services. Right now I’m partnering with the CHA’s Resident Services Department on the second of two research demonstrations intended to improve the well-being of the agency’s most vulnerable families.  That would have been unimaginable when I first ventured into the agency’s high-rise developments in the mid-1980s, and Jordan gets some of the credit. He built on changes that happened early in the CHA’s transformation to foster cooperation and collaboration with researchers and advocates, and he took on tough questions about unintended consequences for residents and communities.

So more than continuity is at stake here.  Whoever becomes the next CEO needs to build on the agency’s momentum in transforming the lives of CHA families and  its distressed developments. The CHA is still home to thousands of impoverished families, many of them struggling with serious health problems, mental illness, substance abuse, and illiteracy. And our research shows that the broad range of services that Jordan and his predecessors were committed to providing can help improve residents’ health and employment prospects.

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