Aldermen, Advocates Push For Senior Housing Protections

Frustrated that few protections exist for seniors who live in Chicago public housing, aldermen back measure that aims to force the Chicago Housing Authority to give notice when it rehabs its buildings.

Seniors and their advocates joined Alds. Harry Osterman, 48th, and Walter Burnett, 27th, in arguing tenants should have protections when the Chicago Housing Authority renovates its buildings. (Alejandra Cancino/BGA)

An outspoken group of senior citizens who say renovations at Chicago Housing Authority buildings are forcing them from their homes and creating unsafe living conditions are calling for the City Council to intervene.

At a news conference on Wednesday, dozens of elderly CHA tenants decried hazardous conditions in their taxpayer-subsidized homes and announced that several aldermen were introducing an ordinance to force the debate.

“Seniors should no longer be treated like second-class citizens,” said Alfred Klinger, 92, who said he fought in War War II because he thought it would bring about a better world. “We have lived rich lives and still contribute to others and everything around us.”

The action follows years of complaints from CHA tenants who say the agency has little regard for their health or their homes and has largely ignored their repeated calls for help as the agency spends nearly a half-a-billion dollars renovating its aging apartment buildings.

The Better Government Association has previously detailed myriad problems in the CHA’s renovation program, from broken elevators and missing safety necessities, such as grab bars, to a lack of heat during the winter – all issues aggravated by costly delays that at times have continued for years.

The CHA has said it does the best it can to mitigate disruptive situations and accommodate its residents, but it has balked at adopting a policy addressing tenants' concerns and give them more rights and protections.

In a statement responding to BGA questions, the agency said it already has procedures in place to provide notice and deal with tenant issues during renovations, as required by federal housing guidelines.

The residents' complaints were the blueprint for the proposed ordinance, spearheaded by Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th. It would require all developers and building owners that receive city funds, including the CHA, to have individualized plans for how to accommodate tenants during renovations, including giving residents more say about relocations and moving expenses.

“We haven’t gotten anywhere when it comes to the CHA adopting a model policy,” Osterman said in an interview before the press conference. “So we just feel that the City Council has to intervene in this.”

The measure – written with help from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a grassroots advocacy group – also would require developers to work with tenants one-on-one to accommodate special needs and set firm deadlines for residents to be informed of moves, changes or delays.

Getting the ordinance through City Hall remains an uphill battle. Neither Mayor Rahm Emanuel nor the CHA has backed the proposal. What’s more, the proposal landed in the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, which is chaired by Ald. Joe Moore, 49th, a frequent target of criticism from CHA tenants.

Senior citizens who live in a CHA apartment building in Moore’s ward on the Far North Side took the alderman to task last year, saying he didn’t do enough for them when they endured freezing temperatures as their building underwent renovations. They also chastised Moore for supporting a new apartment building and a Target store on property that was once a CHA community room and parking lot.

Moore, who received campaign contributions from the developer and subcontractors who worked on the Target project, has said he “went to bat” for the seniors and worked with the CHA and the developer to resolve issues.

Asked on Wednesday whether he supports the ordinance, Moore said, “I don’t want to talk.”

“It has to go through, unfortunately, Joe Moore,” said Linda Armitage, 76, one of the seniors pushing for the ordinance. “If it is not allowed to come for a vote or a hearing, it would die.”

Still, seniors say they hope public support will help their cause, which is why they are sharing their stories.

Frank Hill, 69, said he felt helpless in 2015 when he saw his neighbors at Judge Fisher Apartments in Edgewater scramble to find affordable housing on short notice. The CHA planned to upgrade units, as well as the building’s heating and cooling systems. To do that, the agency emptied a portion of the building. When the empty units were finished, the CHA began shuffling seniors from older units to the rehabbed ones.

When Hill’s turn came to be relocated he said he sat with boxes for more than five months until movers finally arrived on Christmas Eve. Neither his old unit nor the rehabbed unit had heat.

“They said they had a plan but they obviously had no plan,” Hill said in an interview before the press conference. “We were basically treated like cattle.”

The proposed ordinance would protect residents regardless of age, but it includes a section that offers some additional protections for seniors, including help with packing.

“Everybody should want their mother, their father, their grandparents treated with dignity and respect,” said Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, one of at least 17 aldermen listed as sponsors of the ordinance. “It’s something that we should be doing in our society anyway because it is the right thing to do. It’s a shame that we have to pass an ordinance.”

Earlier this year, a group of seniors filed a federal complaint against the CHA, arguing the agency put them at risk of serious injury or death by failing to install grab bars in rehabbed bathrooms – a basic security precaution against falls.

Last year, the BGA detailed problems that occurred during a $45 million renovation at Caroline Hedger Apartments in Rogers Park. The project developer removed grab bars in the 400-unit high-rise and only reinstalled them after residents who were injured complained.

Another issue seniors complained about was broken-down elevators — a problem that occurs across the CHA.

A BGA/WBEZ investigation in June found hundreds of CHA residents were trapped in failing and dilapidated elevators in many of the agency’s buildings. The probe found elevators were repeatedly failing inspections and often cited for safety violations.

Both the CHA and city, which oversees all elevator safety, insist the agency’s elevators are safe.

Following the stories, seniors are also pushing the city to adopt a “Senior Housing Bill of Rights,” a separate document that would require building owners to perform elevator inspections twice a year in senior buildings.

Seniors say they hope they can use the document and make it into a second ordinance that would also call for the creation of a city department specifically dealing with senior housing and offer other protections for seniors. But Osterman said he wants to wait to take up that issue with whoever succeeds Emanuel as mayor.

“Elevators are a critical issue for all senior buildings and I think that’s something that we are going to take up as well,” Osterman said, adding that he and his colleagues still have to find “the right way to address it.”

About the Author

Alejandra Cancino

Cancino is an investigative reporter at BGA. She worked at the Chicago Tribune from 2009 to 2015 as a business reporter covering manufacturing, economic development and labor. Her 2015 labor coverage earned a local award for best business and consumer reporting.