Monday, February 11, 2008

Shocking truth about CHA

The Shocking Truth about CHA
Beauty Turner, Assistant Editor

Residents in the Robert Taylor Homes are being judged as non-lease compliant due to their electric utility bills and may lose their right to return to public housing units in the new mixed-income communities which are planned to replace the current developments. CHA's relocation contract with its residents stipulates that if a resident is not current or on a payment plan concerning their utilities, they will not receive replacement housing, a Housing Choice Voucher or have the right to return to public housing.

But the shocking truth is that CHA may itself be responsible for making many residents non-lease compliant. Back in 1998, CHA dropped the ball when it came to registering buildings in Robert Taylor Homes for electric utility service, according to an RJ investigation.

I talked to former CHA officials and Commonwealth Edison representatives and no one is willing to accept the blame for this problem. An earlier RJ investigation revealed that many Robert Taylor residents had high electric utility bills which they denied accumulating. One year ago, current CHA officials, including CEO Terry Peterson, promised to resolve this issue but apparently have not done so.

And now in 2003, as CHA continues to demolish public housing high rises and make way for promised mixed-income communities, many Robert Taylor residents are dealing with enormous electric bills which may stop them from getting replacement housing or a Housing Choice Voucher, and may stop them from moving back to their neighborhoods. These bills are ruining many residents' credit ratings and might even prevent them from getting into a private market apartment.

In recent months, residents from the Robert Taylor development at 4946 S. State St. - one of the buildings in the so-called "Cluster" - lit up my phone with a surge of calls concerning their high utility bills. Others called to say they were not receiving bills at all. The residents in 4946 S. State were energized over this issue because the building is due to be closed by September of this year.

Of the approximately 100 families left in the building, about one-half are non-lease compliant, the majority due to overdue or unpaid electric bills, according to the research I have been conducting in the building with Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh.

Yet another source of confusion for the residents is that some of the residents who are lease compliant have outstanding light bills. Many of the residents were highly charged and upset when they received letters saying they were non-lease compliant due to their electric bills. "CHA is saying I'm not lease compliant because of my electric bill. I don't even have a meter. How's Commonwealth Edison billing me anyway?" one resident yelled into the receiver. This is one of the many residents who were referred to me while I was doing research about the residents of Robert Taylor.

Darnell "Bull" Montgomery, a longtime resident of Robert Taylor who is working with me on the research, explained the history of the problem. "Back in 1998, when CHA rehabbed the buildings in the Cluster, they didn't contact Commonwealth Edison regarding establishing meters or electricity in the new residents' names.

"After all, the 11th to the 16th floors in the 4946 building had been closed down for years before CHA rehabbed them," Montgomery continued. Commonwealth Edison spokesperson Todd Banks confirmed Montgomery's story. Somewhere on the playing field, CHA dropped the ball.

"CHA never let Commonwealth Edison know that that they were rehabbing those units (meaning in the Cluster). Never did they register for electricity, nor did they ever install meters in the residents' names," Banks continued. "Somewhere along the line, they dropped the ball."

I brought this dilemma to the attention of the current CHA, to Duwaine Bailey, who's over CHA Operations. "This matter will be investigated further and if it is found out to be true, then we will do all that's necessary to help our residents," Bailey said. I investigated further by calling Joseph Shuldiner who was the CEO of CHA in 1998 and who is now a consultant to the Gary, Ind., housing authority.

I talked with Shuldiner about the dilemma concerning the installation of the electrical utility meters in the Cluster when they rehabbed the buildings back in 1998. I explained to Shuldiner that Commonwealth Edison said that the meters were never installed nor were the residents ever registered.

"That has nothing to do with me," Shuldiner said. "You need to look at the people who were over the rehabbing process of those buildings at that time," Shuldiner continued. I asked him if installing the meters and registering tenants was the responsibility of David Anderson, who worked at CHA at the time? "Yes, but it goes farther than us. Other entities were involved," Shuldiner said.

I tracked down David Anderson, who is now working at the Chicago Department of Housing, and asked him about whose job it was to install meters and electric utility hook ups in the Robert Taylor Cluster back in 1998-99? "The responsibility lays on the residents. CHA provides heat and water, and by the way we had constant meetings with the residents and with Commonwealth Edison in those days," Anderson said.

This comment left me wondering. Banks told me that Commonwealth Edison didn't have any records of meeting with CHA or residents at that time. I called Local Advisory Council President Mildred Dennis in Robert Taylor (B) and informed her about the big problem concerning the electric utility hook ups dilemma in the Cluster.

"If this problem happened back in 1998, then I believe that the past management is at fault," Dennis said. I called Interstate Realty, the firm contracted by CHA to manage Robert Taylor, and spoke to Peter Levavi, a developer with Brinshore-Michaels, the company contracted to build the new mixed-income community on the ground where Robert Taylor now stands. Brinshore-Michaels is closely affiliated with Interstate Realty.

I called them to see who or what establishment sent out the non-lease compliant letters to the residents. Levavi confirmed the story provided by residents as well as Commonwealth Edison: CHA never installed the meters or registered the residents in the units they rehabbed in 1998.

Levavi said the problem may even be larger than the Cluster. Levavi gave me many numbers to call, including Interstate's main office in New Jersey. Interstate's representatives never returned my calls. After weeks of investigating this matter, Commonwealth Edison spokesperson Banks called me on April 17, at 7 p.m. on my cell phone, and informed me that about two weeks prior, current CHA officials finally registered the meters in 4946 S. State.

Banks said, "The building on 49th and State has now been IDed by our Engineering Department. "I know that there was an order put in about a couple of weeks ago to have meters put in at that location, and basically our Revenue Management folks - the people who manage the money - are aware as well.

"We are not going to do anything about disconnecting the services. This is in our Revenue Services [Department's] hands and any issue that they have in respect to money that is owed, they have the information to get in touch with CHA, and they have dealt with CHA extensively before. That's going to be a process to get our arms around. I just wanted to make sure you know that it's going to be a work in progress."

Banks didn't explain why Commonwealth Edison was installing meters in a building that is just months away from closing. He also didn't explain what Commonwealth Edison was doing to clear the bills which already had accumulated.

When this issue about the residents' high electric bills was brought up about a year ago, CHA CEO Peterson pledged at that time to resolve this issue. The residents who are having this problem are wondering why it is taking Peterson so long to make the right connections.

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