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CHA officials should be ashamed

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago Housing Authority officials ought to be embarrassed.

Last week, a Better Government Association/Fox Chicago investigation found that city workers were using credit cards to pay for expensive dinners and whatnot.

According to the BGA, the credit card assigned to Chicago Housing Authority CEO Lewis Jordan paid for “numerous meals at Carmine’s, Hugo’s Frog Bar, and Gibsons.”

“We also found thousands of dollars in credit card charges for flowers for CHA employees, including monthly cakes to celebrate their birthdays, holiday gifts for senior staff, a suite at the United Center to boost employee morale, and nearly $800 to pay for red light camera tickets.”

I can understand that Jordan may have had to take a few important people out to lunch.

But a suite at the United Center? Really?

How do you justify living that high on the hog when you are running an agency in the business of providing housing for poor people?

Last year, I spent nearly an entire day touring CHA developments with Jordan, his spokeswoman, Kellie O’Connell-Miller and Marilyn Katz, the city’s well-connected public relations specialist, and I can honestly say, no one pulled out a city credit card to pay for lunch.

Heck, I don’t even remember eating lunch.

High-priced PR campaign

But I do remember being taken aback by Katz’s presence. I didn’t know at the time that Katz was on the CHA’s payroll. In 2010, she had a $500,000 contract with the CHA for communications consulting work. That contract was renewed in 2011 but was renegotiated downward to $250,000, according to a CHA spokeswoman.

She was mainly working with O’Connell-Miller on the “Find Your Place Campaign” to help sell units in mixed-income developments, O’Connell-Miller told me on Friday.

Katz is a high-powered professional, and I mean no disrespect to her or to her firm. But again, how can CHA officials justify spending that kind of money on a PR campaign to attract high-end buyers when the agency exists to provide housing for poor people?

These revelations about the CHA’s spending couldn’t come at a worse time for the agency. Because of the CHA’s controversial proposal to drug test every current and future resident over 18, including seniors, all eyes are on Chicago’s public housing system.

Blogs are abuzz with comments, editorial boards have spoken up, and out-of-towners have weighed in.

“The CHA wants this tool to reassure affluent groups that traditional housing tenants will not bring remnants of their old culture into the new spaces. This measure sadly exposes the stigma attached to public housing residents as harbingers of turf wars, drug abuse and other outrageous beliefs. . . . Invading the privacy of the poor to make the rich feel more comfortable living with them is unconscionable,” wrote a blogger for the Atlanta Post website.

Tenants don’t have money for legal help

Understandably, the developers of the CHA’s mixed developments want to recoup their investment. But the main goal of public housing is to provide a place for poor families to live, not to build affordable housing for the affluent.

The CHA has lost its focus. Instead of serving low-income tenants, the agency is trying to get rid of them.

I told you about Audrey Motes last week. She is one of the residents the CHA is attempting to evict because her 28-year-old son was allegedly caught with drugs on the other side of town.

At a recent forum, Jordan indicated that Motes could get help from one of the agency’s attorneys. His assurances calmed down the crowd. But Motes didn’t get any help. The CHA’s general counsel couldn’t speak to Motes without her lawyer present, and Motes doesn’t have a lawyer.

If the drug-testing policy is established, you can rest assured a lot of people are going to lose their homes — not necessarily because they are doing drugs, but because they do not have the money to hire legal representation.

And the CHA likely will spend even more taxpayer dollars to convince the public it is living up to its mission.

But don’t be fooled.

As is the case for any household, where the CHA places its priorities can be gleaned from how it is spending money.

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