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Shoddy landlords costly to everyone

A protester with 'slumlord' signs 2012 | Sun-Times files

A protester with 'slumlord' signs in 2012 | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 9, 2013 6:20AM

Decaying porches. Gaping holes in the ceiling. Mold running rampant. Rodents.

Chicago Housing Authority residents may be moving on but not necessarily up.

In 2009, LaWanda Dean left public housing in search of a better life. Instead, she ended up in a South Side apartment whose landlord has a history of poor maintenance. One day, the ceiling fell in. Who pays? All of us.

Families like Dean’s are living in substandard conditions in Chicago’s most challenged communities, according to a new investigation by The Chicago Reporter. I am serving as the Reporter’s interim publisher.

Angela Caputo tells Dean’s story and takes an exhaustive look at the CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program, part of the agency’s ongoing “Plan for Transformation.” It’s supposed to provide low-income families with rent subsidies to help them move from crumbling public housing developments to a better life.

Families like Dean’s can rent apartments in privately owned buildings, in neighborhoods with better schools, less poverty and more jobs.

Yet, nearly six of every 10 buildings the CHA inspected in 2012 failed inspections at least half of the time, the analysis shows. The proportion of these chronically troubled buildings — 16,759 properties — has nearly doubled since 2006.

Some of these properties take a long, hard tumble, ending up vacant, boarded up, and in foreclosure. Tenant advocates say some landlords milk the system, collect lucrative rents, then walk away.

Between 2006 and 2011, landlords collected $337 million in federal subsidies for renting apartments in buildings with consistently poor inspection records. The taxpayers foot the bill.

CHA officials say that more landlords are flunking inspections thanks to new and better inspection standards. And 98 percent of the troubled apartments are brought into compliance within 90 days of their inspections, they add.

Ald. Leslie Hairston wants the CHA to do more. Hairston’s 5th Ward is home to more than 250 of the buildings the Reporter identified as chronically troubled. Some building owners are “slumlords,” she told the Reporter, and should be held accountable. “We’re talking about human life here. And we’re talking about deplorable living conditions.”

The numbers are “disappointing,’’ Hairston told me last week, especially because the CHA “has known about these buildings for years.’’

Hairston has to rely on city attorneys and Chicago Department of Buildings officials to investigate “inhumane” conditions in some buildings, she says.

She recommends banning bad landlords, and developing tighter inspection guidelines and response times in emergency situations. Landlords should view their participation in the federally funded program as “a privilege, not a right,’’ she said.

While the Chicago City Council has no direct control over the CHA, aldermen can call for hearings, recommend policy changes and exert political pressure.

In the coming weeks, Hairston says, she will reach out to housing advocacy groups like Lawyers for Better Housing and work with them to develop guidelines that could be “codified” in a city ordinance, she says. “That will be a good summer project.”

She and her council colleagues should also demand that the CHA and Mayor Rahm Emanuel ramp up efforts to police bad landlords, and ensure that our dollars are not rewarding slumlords.

That’s a real plan for transformation.

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