A little over a year ago, almost ten percent of the 2,100 public-housing units owned by the Housing Authority of Cook County had stood empty for two years or more. That meant the county was failing to house about 200 needy households, even though it had spaces for them. But after an aggressive round of rehab—and a shakeup of the agency—those 200 units have been put back in use.
The $4 million it took to get the derelict homes back into shape took no new money from taxpayers, according to Richard Monocchio, appointed to clean up the agency and its housing by county board President Toni Preckwinkle in August 2011. The money all came from capital funds that the previous administration had left unspent while the apartments decayed.
“There hadn’t been an effort to re-populate these units when families moved out,” Monocchio says. A longtime public executive, he says he found the stock of empty homes particularly galling when “we’re in a period in this country when the safety net is frayed, to say the least, and people are losing their homes every day and need help from an agency like this.”
The state of Illinois is increasing the stock of housing for low-income people as well. Last week, the Illinois Housing Development Authority announced that it is investing tax credits that will result in $91.8 million in construction of 460 affordable rental apartments in the Chicago area, including 60 townhomes in Crystal Lake, 91 units of senior housing in Mt. Prospect, and two developments in Chicago that together will provide housing for 126 veterans.
Putting the 200 “long-term vacant” units back in service was a key piece of the housing authority’s yearlong overhaul sparked by Preckwinkle. At a press conference last June, she said the agency had for too long been “overlooked and underutilized in the county’s effort to improve housing and the quality of life for suburban residents.”
Monocchio says overhauling the agency has included the appointment of several new board members, the rehab of at least another 150 units when they turned over between renters, and an intense cleanup of the housing voucher program that has put about 1,000 previously unused vouchers in the hands of qualified low-income renters.
The 200 re-activated units were in south suburban developments owned by the Housing Authority of Cook County, including the Sunrise Apartments, John Mackler Homes and Daniel Bergen Homes in Chicago Heights, the Vera Yates Homes in Ford Heights, and the Turlington W. Harvey Apartments for senior citizens in Harvey.
As would happen in any neighborhood where a share of the homes stand empty over time, neglect had spread from the vacancies to their surroundings, Monocchio says. “We’d walk into the courtyards and see five or six drug dealers,” he recalls. “They weren’t our residents, but they were being tolerated there.”
Working with municipal police departments and the Cook County Sheriff, the agency largely banished the drug dealers and other baddies. Meanwhile, renovations on the apartments included repairing or upgrading everything from mechanical systems to bathroom cabinetry and repainting interiors. “We had to bring these back to being places that people want to live,” Monocchio says. “Not just clean them up inside, but make them stable communities again. We’re like any commercial landlord: We have to offer something you want.”
Through agreements with the housing agency, Comcast has set up computers in community rooms and may provide low-cost high-speed Internet and cable TV hookups in the units, and Walgreen’s provided flu shots at no charge to seniors. The agency’s staffers have put in volunteer time running basketball tournaments as community-building events for residents.
Preckwinkle announced last summer that she’d have Monocchio’s agency explore ways to pursue other cost-effective approaches. Monocchio says one strategy in particular helped get the job done without additional costs to the taxpayers. As he puts it: “Our maintenance guys work now.”